Human Rights and International Law (11): International Law Between Protecting and Obstructing Human Rights; The Rules on Immunity and Intervention

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.


The Ethics of Human Rights (12): How to Deal With the Horrors of the Past?

After a country has gone through democratic reforms, it often faces the difficulty of dealing with the horrors and injustices committed by the previous dictatorial regime. In many cases, a democratic transformation is possible only because of some kind of deal with the previous rulers. They agree to give up power and in exchange receive amnesty and immunity (take the case of Pinochet or of many of Franco’s assistants).

However, things may even be worse. In some cases, the horrors have been committed, not only by a handful of rulers, but by large numbers of citizens. The transformation to a stable democracy is then sealed by a so-called “Pact of Silence”, in which the victims and their families agree to burry the past in order to make it possible for the different parts of the new democratic state to live together.

Democratic progress and democratic stability may indeed require the tragic choice of impunity for the old rulers. But they also require national reconciliation when the past atrocities were the work not only of the rulers but also of numerous civilian henchmen. A society that is not at peace with itself doesn’t have a future, especially when it is a democracy. A democracy, much more than any other state, require the support of a large majority of the people. If a substantial number of people feel that the new democracy is the state of the “victors”, a state moreover which will do everything to get back at them, then we will witness strong social division and a lack of loyalty, both of which are very dangerous for young and not so young democracies. No democracy can afford dissatisfaction and disloyalty in large groups of civilians.

Does this reconciliation, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the new democratic state, require silence about the atrocities of the past? A “turning of the page”? I don’t thinks so, because this silence will not satisfy the victims and their families. And then they will not accept the new democracy. And neither will the international community. Silence and inaction undermine the legitimacy of the new state and sends a message to future criminals.

Punishment can indeed alienate a large portion of the population, and can be detrimental for a young democracy. But so can silence. A democracy is caught between doing too much and doing nothing. However, there’s a large distance between silence and punishment, a distance which can be filled with the writing of history, the telling of the truth (as in the South-African Truth Commission), and the dispensing of forgiveness. Victims and their families will never accept silence, certainly not in the long term. The telling of the truth is very important to them, more important probably than punishment. And in exchange they may be convinced to forgive, especially if the truth-tellers can also express regret, remorse and guilt. This forgiveness in turn sends a strong message to the perpetrators, a message of inclusion and love. And this is a strong basis for a new society. Forgiveness is the opposite of forgetting. Because of the extraordinary nature of the forgiveness for an act of horror, this act will be remembered forever. A “right to truth” can be based on the right to information as expressed in art. 19 of the Universal Declaration.

The remembrance of the past may require some kind of amnesty. One can convince people to tell the truth and to ask for forgiveness by promising some kind of leniency. To fight amnesia, amnesty may be necessary. Of course, this applies to the large number of ordinary citizens who were the executors of the crimes, not to the few leaders planning and ordering them. They have to be punished, and they can be because their support is not required for national reconciliation. Their support is not necessary for the maintenance of the new regime. How can people be expected to live their lives when the most despicable murderers continue to live among them, often in luxury and without remorse? And how can the normal criminal justice system be expected to function?

Punishment of large portions of a population, on the other hand, may satisfy some short term feelings of revenge, but does nothing to build a long term future for society. There may be judicial verdicts on their crimes, but the punishments for the crimes should be indefinitely postponed in exchange for the truth. This is not impunity. It’s the correct balance between the needs of the past and the needs of the future. Turning the page without closing the book, as someone has said.

Silence is never good. Telling the story can help to avoid the horror from repeating itself. However, telling the story isn’t a sufficient conditions. Education isn’t almighty. Present-day neo-Nazis for example know all too well what happened, and they consciously want to repeat it. But forgetting is a sufficient conditions for a repetition. Some people do learn from history. And telling the truth, making things clear will force people who want to repeat it to openly take the side of barbarity. They will have a lot more difficulties to promote their case and they will only attract barbarians.

Human Rights and International Law (9): Impunity

I deeply hope that the horrors humanity has suffered during the 20th century will serve us as a painful lesson, and that the creation of the International Criminal Court will help us to prevent those atrocities from being repeated in the future. Statement made by Luis Moreno-Ocampo on the occasion of his election as first Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court by the Assembly of States Parties in New York on 22 April 2003.

Many gross violations of rights such as genocides, state oppression, torture etc. are committed by the political class of a country, and in particular by the political leaders. And if they don’t personally dirty their hands, they organize, order, facilitate and protect the executors. They view rights violations as a necessary element in the exercise of power.

For many reasons, legal and practical, these leaders often enjoy impunity, meaning literally “without punishment”. The “Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Through Action to Combat Impunity” describes impunity in this way:

The impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account ’96 whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings ’96 since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims. (source)

Reasons for impunity

Here are some of these reasons for impunity:

1. Self-Preservation

A first reason for impunity is the fact that the perpetrators are in power and have subjected the justice system and the judiciary to their command. They have, in other words, destroyed the division of powers or failed to institutionalize it. Because they are so powerful, most of them die in the saddle and only have to fear a Higher Judge.

But some do not and end their reign (or see it ended) during their lifetime. But even then they manage to protect themselves. If they still have enough influence to stay in the country, they can either negotiate immunity or amnesty (take the case of Pinochet), or they have enough friends in high places to dispense with such formalities (take Deng Xiaoping, the butcher of Tienanmen).

2. The solidarity of tyrants

If their exit from power is somewhat acrimonious, they may have to flee to another country where a friendly dictator will do everything to avoid a precedent of justice and will harbor the criminal until the end of his days (take Karadzic). How beautiful solidarity can be.

3. The law

Sometimes the national justice system can’t help, and at other times the international solidarity of tyrants hinders an otherwise able and willing justice system. Also the law can come to the rescue. State functionaries (sometimes even former functionaries) claim to enjoy legal immunity in national or even international law for acts carried out while in office. Individual perpetrators hide behind their states. Heads of state or leading functionaries are said to 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 hide behind the “Befehl ist Befehl” principle. They cannot be punished because they follow orders from people who themselves are not responsible either.

Only by transcending these 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 Nuremberg tribunal was the first tribunal to judge the crimes of political leaders and to refuse to grant them immunity for war crimes and gross violations of human rights such as the holocaust. The charter of the fledgling International Criminal Court (ICC) also rules out defenses based on immunity:

Immunities or special procedural rules which may attach to the official capacity of a person, whether under national or international law, shall not bar the Court from exercising its jurisdiction over such a person. (source)

Charles Taylor of Liberia was indicted in 2003 while still in power, and is now in the dock in The Hague. Milosevic went before him and others will follow. But they have to be extradited. Political leaders will not extradite themselves, and after they leave office they will continue to enjoy some protection at home. Taylor was arrested because he first agreed to accept exile in Nigeria.

Moreover, countries have to sign up to the ICC treaty. Zimbabwe for example has not signed up, so Mugabe will not have his day in court, unless there is a referral to the court by the Security Council. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is now indicted on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes over the slaughter in Darfur, but will probably remain comfortably in his seat.

Some claim that the possibility of being handed over to the ICC after the end of their reign, forces tyrants to cling to power and use ever more violent means to do so. But then you could as well grant amnesty to all hostage takers out of fear that they would otherwise do more harm to their hostages.

4. Institutional problems

The impunity of ordinary civil servants or members of the police is often the consequence of under-developed state institutions. Judiciaries that are malfunctioning or corrupt, policemen who are underpaid or have a lack of training etc.

Impunity arises from a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate violations; to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered; to ensure the inalienable right to know the truth about violations; and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations. (source)


The Committee to Protect Journalists has an impunity index in which countries are ranked according to the number of murder of journalists that are unresolved. More statistics are here.