When human rights are violated by people who represent a state – such as a head of state who orders rights violations or carries them out himself – it often happens that the national rights protection mechanisms, such as the courts and the police, do not assume their responsibility to protect. The individuals who have committed rights violations are not prosecuted by their own states, because they represent the state. They have control over the agencies that normally (should) prosecute rights violations.
This is de facto immunity. And this can extend even to the period after they have left power. Maybe they managed to make some kind of amnesty deal with the new democracy, or they just use their influence and their friends in order to pervert the justice system and the division of powers and to escape punishment.
But often these people – even when they have left power, such as former heads of state – enjoy not only de facto but also de juri immunity in national or even international law. Whatever the merits of the rules on immunity in international law, this can never be justified in cases involving rights violations. The theory of immunity says that heads of state or leading functionaries are not responsible for their actions. They represent their states and all their actions are “acts of state,” and therefore the state is responsible for these acts. Lower ranking officials are not responsible either because they can always hide behind the “Befehl ist Befehl” principle. They cannot be punished because they follow orders from people who themselves are not responsible.
Only by transcending the principles of immunity and command can individuals be punished for violations of human rights and can human rights be protected (punishing states is very difficult and is not fair because it is a kind of collective punishment). This has been the main achievement of the Nuremberg Tribunal. The Charter of the Tribunal clearly states that individuals have international obligations that go beyond their national obligations or commands. Since Nuremberg, it is no longer possible to claim that international law only deals with “acts of state” and that individuals cannot be punished for the acts they commit as representatives of their state or as executives carrying out orders. Nuremberg has given individuals criminal responsibility in international law.
Citizens are no longer at the mercy of powerful individuals within their states. It has become more difficult for individuals to shed their responsibility and to hide behind their functions, immunities, privileges, or hierarchy. Individuals can be made internationally accountable for their actions if these actions are crimes under international law. The fact that national law is not applied, is silent in the matter, or even explicitly approves or imposes the actions does not guarantee an escape from justice.
One of the characteristics of international law is its priority over national law. Human rights especially, as far as they have become part of international law, have priority over national law. Violations of rights that are not punished by national law or that are explicitly ordered by national law can be crimes under international law, in which case international law has priority. Individuals or states can be sentenced and condemned by organs representative of the international community.
But this immediately raises the legal problem of international intervention, as does the right of international institutions to hear complaints by individuals whose rights are violated and who can’t find redress in their national courts, and the right of international institutions to monitor the human rights situation inside individual states. Intervention is forbidden under international law, and this prohibition is a part of international law which, like the rule on immunity, obstructs human rights. The Charter of the UN, although it mentions human rights as one of its aims, specifically prohibits intervention in so-called internal affairs of member states, in the intra-national relationships between states and their citizens (this is the infamous article 2, paragraph 7:
Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.
This article is often used against attempts to intervene for the sake of human rights. Even merely verbal criticism of rights violations is often supposed to be the type of “intervention” prohibited by article 2, paragraph 7. The “matters” referred to in the article are never precisely defined, so that every state is free to define them. Hence, intervention becomes practically impossible.
However, some acts clearly do not belong to these “matters”: violations of international law; attacks on international peace; and, according to some, systematic and extreme violations of human rights if these violations threaten international peace. Chapter VII of the Charter allows intervention in these cases following a decision by the Security Council, and article 2 explicitly provides an exception for this kind of intervention.
This is important for human rights, and today’s consensus on the definition of “matters” may even include grave violations that do not result in threats to peace. Some “internal matters,” which at first sight can benefit from article 2, paragraph 7, are clearly violations of other provisions of the Charter, e.g., structural violations of human rights such as apartheid (in particular article 55). In that case, some believe that the UN may take measures under Chapter VII (sanctions or even military intervention). Chapter VII can override article 2, paragraph 7, and is perhaps an instrument to enforce certain human rights in certain cases.
Self-determination and sovereignty are very important, but it is obvious that these concepts can easily be used to counter criticism of rights violations. The protection of states requires the doctrine of non-intervention and of the equality of sovereign states. Unfortunately, what is necessary for the protection of states is often harmful to human rights.
Although the views today are perhaps a bit more shaded, it is tradition to assume that the only legitimate enforcement actions of the UN agencies (so-called “collective measures” and “preventive or enforcement action” under Chapter VII) are actions directed at the protection or enforcement of international peace. This is important enough also for human rights, but it only includes actions necessary to enforce respect for human rights when those human rights are directly violated as a consequence of the absence of peace or when their violation may lead to breaches of peace.