The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


This term refers to situations in which there are no effective measures to penalize violations or when such measures are not enforced. Impunity may result from a political decision and amnesty regulation or from a judicial system that functions poorly or is disintegrating.

In international law, impunity most often results from the absence of judicial mechanisms that are capable of judging a failure to comply with established rules. The enforcement of penalties for crimes committed is most frequently carried out by domestic courts. It is therefore especially difficult to render justice on war crimes or crimes against humanity that were committed by government actors or people under their command in times of armed conflict.

The Fight against Impunity

To fight impunity, international and national criminal law establishes that certain crimes are not subject to any statute of limitations. This means that legal proceedings cannot be limited in time and can be initiated even if the acts remain unpunished for years.

According to international law, heads of states and government enjoy limited immunity. Therefore, the International Criminal Court or domestic courts may—under certain circumstances—criminally prosecute them.

Humanitarian law imposes on all states the obligation to pursue the perpetrators of grave violations of the Geneva Conventions (war crimes) and to prosecute them no matter what their nationality. This is the concept of universal jurisdiction.

Furthermore, for such serious crimes, humanitarian law forbids that amnesties be granted at the time of negotiation of peace accords or under any other circumstance.

Two ad hoc tribunals were established in 1993 and 1994 by the UN Security Council. They have jurisdiction over the crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted in Rome in July 1998, as the result of a diplomatic conference organized under the aegis of the UN. The Statute entered into force on 1 July 2002, when the sixtieth state ratified it. The Court is responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of the crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and aggression. In this respect, the ICC is at the forefront of the fight against impunity for such crimes.

AmnestiesGenocideImmunityInternational Criminal CourtInternational Criminal TribunalsNon-applicability of statutory limitationsPenal sanctions in humanitarian lawResponsibilityTortureUniversal jurisdictionWar crimes/Crimes against humanity

For Additional Information: Bassiouni, Cherif, ed. Post Conflict Justice . Ardsley, NY: Transnational, 2002, esp. 3–54.

———. Reining in Impunity for International Crimes and Serious Violations of Fundamental Human Rights: Proceeding of the Siracusa Conference, 17–21 September 1998 . Toulouse: Eres, 1998.

O’Shea, Andreas. Amnesty for Crimes in International Law and Practice . The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2002.

Rodley, Nigel, and Michel Scharf. “International Law Principle on Accountability.” In Post Conflict Justice , edited by Cherif Bassiouni, 89–96. Ardsley, NY: Transnational, 2002.

Roht-Arriaza, Naomi. Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice . New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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