The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

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

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Individual Recourse

Individuals do not have an “international legal personality” that is recognized under international law. They can exercise their rights before national courts, which will determine the appropriate sanctions and the reparation for the prejudice suffered.

The idea of compensation of victims for human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law is recent in international law. It is part of the right to judicial remedies recognized by international law to victims of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. It is mainly up to national jurisdictions to provide remedy and compensation. At the international level, there are still relatively few international judicial remedies available to individuals. Nonetheless, there are several non-judicial bodies, at the international and regional levels, that offer mechanisms of individual remedies.

Human rights

Available Recourses in Case of Grave Breaches of International Humanitarian Law and Torture

  • Victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide may in principle bring cases before a national court of any State on the basis of universal jurisdiction, as established by the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1984 Convention against Torture. However, some complaints have been unsuccessful as the State in question had not brought its legislation into conformity with this international obligation, or because the alleged perpetrator was not present on the territory of the State.
  • Victims of events that took place in the former Yugoslavia or in Rwanda cannot file complaints directly with the two ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals, but they can submit information to the prosecutor. They do not benefit from the status of “victim” before these Tribunals but only from that of “witness.”
  • Victims may not directly seize the International Fact-Finding Commission, which is responsible for investigating alleged grave breaches and serious violations of humanitarian law. They must address themselves to States Parties, which alone may request that the Commission initiate an inquiry.
  • Victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide can not directly refer a case to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
  • However, victims, as well as witnesses and NGOs, may transmit information to the prosecutor of the ICC, who, under certain conditions, has the power to launch an investigation on his own initiative. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court may decide to initiate an investigation under the following conditions: the state on the territory of which the crime was committed or the state of the nationality of the alleged offender has ratified the Rome Statute, the acts that appear to be committed are not isolated actions but are part of crimes against humanity or war crimes, and the domestic courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute the crimes. The procedure provides victims and witnesses with special protection. Victims may be present during the trials. The International Criminal Court may decide to grant reparation to victims.
  • Regional courts of human rights, and particularly the European Court of Human Rights, have individual complaint procedures.

Human rightsInternational Fact-Finding CommissionReparation (Compensation)TortureWar crimes/Crimes against humanity

International law makes few provisions to award reparations to victims of violations of humanitarian law. Usually it refers cases to national courts’ rulings or to voluntary ad hoc funds. In terms of human rights protection, there are more opportunities for individuals to have recourse to an international organ, whether judicial or not. Several such entities, usually treaty monitoring bodies (listed later), accept claims or petitions filed by individuals. ▸ Human rightsInternational Criminal Court

Individual Recourse to Judicial Bodies

At the international level, there is no mechanism that can provide universal protection of human rights or punishment for violations of human rights or humanitarian law. There is no international court that has a mandate to receive individual complaints of such type. The International Criminal Court (ICC) may receive information from individuals regarding allegations of crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. However, such complaints will not automatically trigger a prosecution on the part of the ICC, unless the prosecutor so decides and certain preconditions to the Court’s exercise of jurisdiction have been met (see box above).

At the regional level, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the African Court for Human and People’s Rights, the ECOWAS Court of Justice, and the East African Court of Justice can receive individual communications.

With regard to the European Court of Human Rights, since the European Convention’s Protocol 11 entered into force in November 1998, all forty-seven States Parties to the Convention must accept the Court’s competence to receive individual applications (Art. 34 of European Convention).

This competence is optional before the African Court on Human and People’s Rights. This Court, created in 1998 after the adoption of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, can examine individual complaints (Art. 5.3 of the Protocol) if the State against whom the complaint was filed has accepted the competence of the Court (Art. 34.6 of the Protocol). This provision (possibility to receive individual complaints) is also optional under the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights (Art. 30.f), adopted in 2008, which will merge when it enters into force the African Court on Human and People’s Rights and the African Court of Justice.

Since 2005, citizens of ECOWAS Member States can file complaints against human rights violations perpetrated by State agents before the regional Court of Justice. The Court, which sits in Abuja, Nigeria, rules according to the provisions of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Its decisions are legally binding to the ECOWAS Member States. Contrary to most of the other judicial bodies, local remedies need not be exhausted before cases are brought to the ECOWAS Court of Justice. The Court has already made a number of rulings on human rights issues. In 2008, the Court took a historic decision concerning slavery. The State of Niger was condemned for having violated the human rights of one of its citizens. While the Court found that Niger was not itself responsible for the discrimination, the country was found in violation of its international obligation to protect one of its citizens from slavery under international and national law ( Hadijatou Mani Koraou v. the Republic of Niger , 27 October 2008). As a direct consequence of this case law, a positive obligation of States was found in the context of the prevention of slavery, similar to the one previously recognized in the Siliadin Case ( Siliadin v. France , ECHR, 26 July 2005) on the basis of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Individual Recourse before Nonjudicial Bodies

The examination of individual communications by non-judicial bodies does not give rise to mandatory decisions or sanctions. Nonetheless, it highlights collective patterns of human rights violations and puts pressures on States.

This procedure is mandatory under several conventions before the following bodies:

  • African Commission on Human Rights (African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Art. 55. A communication shall be considered by the Commission if a simple majority of its members so decide);
  • Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (American Convention on Human Rights, Art. 44). The Commission can decide to bring the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights if the State does not comply with the Commission’s recommendations;
  • Human Rights Committee (First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force in 1976, Art. 1);
  • Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which entered into force in 2008, Art. 2. Only eight States have ratified this Protocol);
  • Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Arts. 1, 2);
  • Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Art. 1);
  • African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Art. 44).

This procedure is optional before the following bodies (States have to make a declaration accepting the competence of the Committee):

  • Committee against Torture (Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Art. 22);
  • Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Art. 14);
  • Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers (International Convention on the Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families, Art. 77.
  • Committee on the Rights of the Child (Third Optional Protocol to the CRC). Such provisions will enter into force once 10 states have ratified this protocol.

Moreover, in times of armed conflict, the ICRC is mandated by the 1949 Geneva Conventions to receive individual claims concerning humanitarian law violations. However, the ICRC is not a judicial body but acts as custodian of IHL. As such, it will report cases of violations to relevant authorities to make sure they are informed of the given situation and can redress it. This is done on a confidential basis.

In practice, the efficiency of the mechanisms that can receive communications from individuals remains limited because their competence to receive such complaints is often optional—dependent on States’ explicit consent—and the procedures are subject to multiple admissibility conditions. Furthermore, only rulings by judicial organs (the European, African and Interamerican Courts of Human Rights) are truly binding on the accused States.

Other types of remedies exist and can be triggered by States or NGOs. They are presented in the following entries: ▸ Human rightsWar crimes/Crimes against humanity .

Preventive Mechanisms

In international law, there are several mechanisms preventing torture, according to which independent national or international organs may visit detention centers. These organs may be informed about individual cases. Such organs include the European Committee Against Torture, which has jurisdiction over all Council of Europe Member States, and the UN Sub-committee on Prevention of Torture, which has jurisdiction over States Parties to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 18 December 2002. This Optional Protocol entered into force in June 2006 and binds sixty-eight States as of April 2013. According to the Protocol, States Parties undertake the obligation to set up, designate, or maintain at the domestic level one or several visiting bodies for the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

In situations of armed conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only institution that has a right to visit any detention facility linked with the conflict. Individual cases may be referred to the ICRC so it can report them to the authority exercising effective control on the situation.

Mechanisms of remedies also exist within the United Nations system. The Special Procedures mechanism, put in place by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and assumed by the Human Rights Council, includes the possibility to examine individual communications under the Complaint Procedure. The Human Rights Council Advisory Committee has appointed a Working Group on Communications, with a mandate to examine the communications and to bring to the attention of the Council consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

African Commission and Courts on Human RightsCommittee against TortureCommittee on the Elimination of Racial DiscriminationCommittee on the Rights of the ChildEuropean Committee for the Prevention of TortureEuropean Court of Human RightsHuman rightsHuman Rights CommitteeIll treatmentInter-American Court and Commission on Human RightsInternational Criminal CourtInternational Criminal TribunalsInternational Fact-Finding CommissionInternational Humanitarian LawPenal sanctions in humanitarian lawRapeRed Cross and the Red CrescentReparation (Compensation)ResponsibilityTortureUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights/ Human Rights CouncilUniversal jurisdictionWar crimes/Crimes against humanity

For Additional Information: Shelton, Dinah. Remedies in International Human Rights Law . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rodley, Nigel, and David Weissbrodt. “United Nations Non-Treaty Procedure for Dealing with Human Rights Violations.” In Guide to International Human Rights Practice , edited by Hurst Hannum, 65–88. Ardsley, NY: Transnational, 2004.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Complaint Mechanism of the Special Procedures.” Available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Communications.aspx .

Zegveld, L. “Remedies for Victims of Violations of International Humanitarian Law.” International Review of the Red Cross 851 (September 2003): 497–526.

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