The role of international criminal tribunals in promoting human rights

Author:Sebastian Raduletu
Position:Faculty of Law and Administrative Sciences, University of Craiova

An important debate in contemporary international law is the extent to which the international trials could contribute to development of human rights. This article presents the place of this type of trials among the means of transitional justice and asserts their benefits for human rights by approaching three main issues related to international criminal tribunals: their activity based on the rule of law, their influence in societies emerging from human rights abuses and their role to deter future human rights violations. It also challenges the main critiques of international criminal justice, in order to cover all the relevant aspects of the topic.

Sebastian RduleYu*)
An important debate in contemporary international law is the extent to which
the international trials could contribute to development of human rights. This
article presents the place of this type of trials among the means of transitional
justice and asserts their benefits for human rights by approaching three main issues
related to international criminal tribunals: their activity based on the rule of law,
their influence in societies emerging from human rights abuses and their role to
deter future human rights violations. It also challenges the main critiques of
international criminal justice, in order to cover all the relevant aspects of the topic.
Keywords: public law; human rights; international criminal tribunals;
transitional justice
Over the last two decades the importance of international trials, their role in
dealing with mass violations of human rights but also their limits, have fostered
lively debate among international law scholars and practitioners but also among
politicians and other actors on the international stage. The main topic of this
debate has been whether international trials, with their focus on individual
responsibility, are really necessary for protecting the human rights or, on the
contrary, they could rather ban the peace process. Some authors1) have argued for
the idea of an essential role of international tribunals in promoting human rights
while others 2)
have considered these institutions as having only a limited
significance in this domain, even constituting sometimes an obstacle to the peace
process in the countries affected by large scale abuses. The entire debate has
revealed the tension between justice and peace, or in the words of Akhavan, the
*) Faculty of Law and Administrative Sciences, University of Craiova. The author is currently
postgraduate student in the Master program in International Human Rights Law of the University
of Oxford (2012-2014), receiving for this program of study a Clarendon Fund Scholarship. e-mail:
J. Stromseth, ‘Justice on the Ground: Can International Criminal Courts Strengthen
Domestic Rule of Law in Post-Conflict Societies?’, Hague Journal on the Rule of Law, Volume 1,
Issue 1, March 2009, pp. 87-97., M. Minow, ‘Between Vengeance and Forgiveness’ (1998), at. 25,
in H. J. Steiner, P. Alston, R. Goodman, ‘International Human Rights in Context’, Oxford
University Press, 2007, pp. 1244-1245.
2) J. Snyder, L. Vinjamury, ‘Trials and Errors: Principle and Pragmatism in Strategies of
International Justice’, 28 International Security 5 (2003/2004), at. 43-44, in H. J. Steiner, P. Alston,
R. Goodman, ibid., pp. 1333-1334.
judicial romanticism versus political realism3). This essay will assert that the
benefits of international tribunals in protecting and promoting human rights are
multiple, especially for establishing individual responsibility which should be
considered as essential for the protection of human rights. Nevertheless, in order
to cover all the relevant aspects of the topic, it will also go on to challenge the
main critics of international trials. After a short presentation of the birth and
development of international tribunals as means of transitional justice, the essay
will approach three main issues related to this type of tribunals: their activity
based on the rule of law, their influence in societies emerging from human rights
abuses and their role to deter future human rights violations. Each time it will also
discuss the main critics related to these issues.
As mentioned in the title of this article, international trials are considered to
be one of the principal means of transitional justice. The latter notion is used by
legal scholarship to design the ways by which international community or the new
democratic regimes approach the mass crimes perpetrated by the authoritarian
regimes. «The term transitional justice, which is commonly used to describe
multiple mechanisms during democratization, is more than descriptive. It conveys
a normative understanding about what these processes are meant to achieve,
namely, some measure of justice for victims of state crimes»4). These institutional
reactions to massive human rights violations may have different forms: truths
commissions, domestic trials for individual criminals, conducted by national
courts or hybrid tribunals, or international trials of principal perpetrators,
conducted by permanent tribunals such as International Criminal Court or ad hoc
tribunals, such as International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or
International Tribunal for Rwanda. The sphere of this article will include only the
international trials for mass violation of human rights, whereas other means of
transitional justice, such as hybrid tribunals or truth commissions will be excluded.
Thus, only the trials before international jurisdictions will be the focus of this
The international tribunals appeared in the aftermath of the Second World
War with the tribunals from Nuremberg and Tokyo. After 1980, these institutions
have become an important mean of transitional justice together with hybrid
tribunals, national courts and truth commissions. As a result of development of
international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the past
3) P. Akhavan, ‘Are International Criminal Tribunals a Disincentive to Peace?: Reconciling
Judicial Romanticism with Political Realism’, Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 31, Number 3,
August 2009, pp. 624-654.
4) M. Nobles, The Prosecution of Human Rights Violations, The Annual Review of Political
Science, Volume 13, 2010, p. 166.
decades, when a society faced serious crimes such as genocide or war crime, the
principle of justice should prevail over the possibility of amnesty laws5). From this
perspective, amnesties can be used only in exceptional situations to end a conflict
or to assure peaceful transition to a democratic society. In this new framework,
where the transitional justice is used to deal with the mass abuses, the
international trials should be considered of paramount importance for the
effectiveness of universal protection of human rights.
Firstly, one of the main arguments in favor of international tribunals is that
these institutions strengthen the rule of law both at international and national level.
The universal principles of justice, such as independence and legitimacy of the
judges, fairness of the trial, individual responsibility, cross examination,
presumption of innocence, judgment on the base of general, preexisting norms,
right to legal assistance, will contribute to the defense of human rights and to the
fair balance between the opposite interests involved in each particular case. At a
larger scale, the rule of law, applied after mass violation of human rights in a
certain country, could help to arbitrate between vengeance and forgiveness6) and
to rebuild the confidence in fair justice7). From this perspective the international
tribunals seem to be more fitted to deliver objective judgments than national or
even hybrid tribunals which function on place and could be subjected to various
Of course, international trials have their own limits. Only the principal
perpetrators are held accountable and only for the worst violations of human
rights such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. But these limits
could not be considered a powerful argument against the important role of
international tribunals. Other persons who contributed to abuses and other types of
violations could be approached by national courts that can join in this way the
activity of international institutions.
The main critique of the activity of international tribunals has emerged from
their focus on the deeds of individual persons without taking into consideration
the political context. Or one of the most important defenses of the accused in
international trials is based on the context of the facts especially when they were
perpetrated during war conditions8). Of course, all the circumstances, such as the
national, political or ethnic situation, should be analyzed by the international
courts, but this will serve only to find the truth about the indictments in the
5) L. J. Laplante, ‘Outlawing Amnesty: The Return of Criminal Justice in Transitional Justice
Schemes’, Virginia Journal of International Law, Volume 49, 208-2009, p. 974.
6) M. Minow, ibid., p. 1244.
7) J. Stromseth, ibid., p. 89.
8) M. Koskenniemi, ‘Between Impunity and Show Trials’, Max Planck Yearbook of United
Nations Law 6:1 (2002) in H. J. Steiner, P. Alston, R. Goodman, ibid., pp. 1245-1248.
specific case, and not to avoid the individual responsibility. The focus on
punishment of individual violators, which characterize the activity of international
tribunals, is determinant for a real protection of human rights. It could also have
an important role in deterring future violations as it will be asserted later.
Secondly, the international trials, as means of transitional justice, have a
significant influence upon the societies were human rights violations were
perpetrated. The main debate from this perspective concerns the role of these trials
in national reconciliation. In the past when international trials were organized in
occupied countries, such as Nuremberg or Tokyo trials, the problem of their role
for preserving the peace was not very relevant. But in present days, when
international institutions try to end atrocities by negotiations rather than by
military occupation, this problem becomes more and more actual9). Some authors
argued that indictments of the leaders of authoritarian regimes while they are still
in power could lead to further perpetration of atrocities instead of ending them by
peace settlements10). Nevertheless this hypothesis is not proven by relevant facts.
On the contrary, in some cases, such as Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda and Sudan, the
decision to prosecute and the arrest warrant contributed to prevent the
continuation of violations11).
Another important issue from this perspective is the role of international
tribunals in promoting respect for human rights in countries with a repressive past.
They should deliberately build public trust in justice in post conflict societies by
understanding the local culture, constructive outreach or help in improving the
domestic justice systems 12 ). From the last perspective, the case-law of
international human rights courts could influence the protection of these rights at
national level. One relevant example is the decision from 2001 of Inter-American
Court of Human Rights in Barrios Altos case which contributed to limitation of
amnesty laws in Latin America and to criminal prosecution for the violation of
human rights in these countries13). Another regional court that influences even
deeper the protection of human rights at national level is the European Court on
Human Rights. Some of its case-law can be viewed as transitional justice since it
deals with mass human rights violations in repressive past. For example, by the
judgment from 8 December 2009, issued in the case Sandru and others v.
Romania 14 ), the Court retained the violation of article 2 of the European
9) P. Akhavan, ibid., p. 626.
10) M. Boot, ‘When Justice and Peace Don’t Mix’, Wall Street Journal, 2 October 2000, at
A34 in H. J. Steiner, P. Alston, R. Goodman, ibid., pp.1332-1333; J. Snyder, L. Vinjamury, ibid., p.
11) P. Akhavan, ibid., p. 625.
12) J. Stromseth, ibid., p. 91.
13) L. J. Laplante, ibid., p. 971.
14) Sandru and others v Romania App no 22465/03 (ECHR, 8 December 2009).
Convention on Human Rights because the state did not respect its obligation to
investigate the violent repressive actions of the former communist regime against
peaceful protesters in the town of Timisoara in December 1989. The Court held
that national proceedings against the perpetrators of mass killing actions were not
in accordance with the exigencies of the Convention concerning the right to life,
especially because of their very long duration. This judgment had significant
impact in Romanian society due to the large number of people involved and to the
importance of these events for the recent past of the country, enforcing the public
confidence at national level in the European Court. Moreover, other case-law of
this court could be viewed as belonging to transitional justice since it deals in a
certain way with the reparations for human rights violation during communist
period in Romania. From this perspective, the richest jurisprudence of European
Court was produced in the field of property rights, the Romanian state being
condemned for taking inadequate domestic measures in order to cover the
damages produced by large scale communist nationalizations15).
Finally, the last part of the debate about the significance of international trials
concerns their presumed role in deterring future violations of human rights. These
trials, which deal with the facts of main perpetrators, should be an example for
other leaders that transgression of fundamental rights is punished. As Sikkink and
Booth Walling have mentioned, the strategic impact of trials on the next
generations of military leaders is relevant: “they may decide that trials have made
repression and coups too costly for use in the future”16). From this perspective the
activity of ad-hoc international tribunals, such as International Criminal Tribunals
for Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, have had a deterring effect. One could
presume that a permanent International Criminal Court will have even more
importance from this perspective. But some authors argue that this effect of
international trials is doubtful17). The mass violation of human rights belongs to
the normality of a totalitarian society or they take place in war times, which
represent exceptional situations. Thus it is unlikely that for perpetrators the risk of
a future trial will be deterring. In addition, in many cases, criminals intend to do
15) This case-law started with Vasilescu v Romania App no 27053/95 (ECHR, 22 May 1998),
continued with tens of judgments in favor of individual victims and culminated with Maria
Atanasiu and others, App. 30767/05 and 33800/06 (ECHR, 12 October 2010) where the Court
used a “pilot-judgment procedure”, by which Romanian state was demanded to take general
measures amending national legislation and administrative practice in order to protect the property
rights of all people in similar situations. Thus, the Court extended by itself its competence to check
even the political and general measures adopted at national level, in order to protect the
fundamental rights of a large number of people.
16) K. Sikkink, C. Booth Walling, ‘Do Human Rights Trials Improve Human Rights?’ in H. J.
Steiner, P. Alston, R. Goodman, ibid., p. 1338, 1340.
17) J. Snyder, L. Vinjamury, ibid., p. 1334.
good things in the name of an ideology18). These two positions presented above
are the result of suppositions and they are not based on factual realities.
Nevertheless, most studies based on empirical data have proven that international
trial, as means of transitional justice, have rather positive effects19). In any case, it
is relevant the example of the Nuremberg trial which influenced the future
generations of Germans in becoming “champions of human rights20)”.
In conclusion, this article has discussed the extent to which the international
trials represent the main solution for mass violation of human rights. Furthermore,
it has asserted that punishment of individual violators by international prosecution
is a necessity for successful promotion of human rights. In the future, in order to
be more effective, the international criminal law should be more unitary, on the
case-law of the International Criminal Court. In addition, one should be aware that,
a real confidence in justice can be assured only if the international tribunals,
which deal with a small number of perpetrators, are joined by the activity of
national courts in this important field. The domestic impact of the activity of
international criminal justice, the “justice on the ground21)”, should be analyzed
by future interdisciplinary studies in order to improve the confidence of post
conflict societies in the rule of law.
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