Toward universal justice

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The end of the Cold War, media coverage of mass atrocities inflicted on civilian populations, and advocacy by NGO s have boosted human rights protection – via conventions and laws – much to the chagrin of certain states. International criminal tribunals were established to judge crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia (1993) and in Rwanda (1994). The Rome Statute instituting the International Criminal Court (ICC), adopted in 1998, entered into force in 2002. However, several major states refused to ratify it (China, United States, India, Israel, Russia), some have left or threatened to do so (South Africa, Burundi, Gambia and the Philippines, along with the African Union, operating collectively), others have criticized its cost and slowness, its unsuitability for dealing with complex post-conflict national situations and the disproportionate focus of its initial cases on African conflicts.

In parallel, some countries are establishing hybrid or mixed criminal tribunals (Cambodia, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Timor Leste, Kosovo, Central African Republic, etc.). Negotiated with the UN and/or regional institutions, these jurisdictions refer to national law, are integrated within national legal systems, and are composed of national and international judges and prosecutors.

International Criminal Court (ICC), June 2018

Source: United Nations,

Comment: The ICC is an international tribunal which, since 2002, has judged individuals charged with the most serious crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, etc.). However, barely two-thirds of states accept the ICC’s authority. Only in Latin America and Europe is the Rome Statute widely ratified; it is much less endorsed in Africa and very rarely in the Middle East and Asia. This means that the United States, China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey are outside the ICC. Although completed trials have all concerned individuals from African countries – which has led to repeated criticism –, investigations have also been conducted outside Africa, in Colombia, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Venezuela.

Additionally, various mechanisms have been implemented since the 1990s to rebuild societies emerging from armed conflicts and/or repressive regimes and build lasting peace. This “transitional justice” aims to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable, to identify the facts in order to promote reconciliation between the parties in conflict and the populations affected, and to discourage any resumption of hostilities by fostering a climate conducive to easing social tensions. As part of this process, truth commissions can be set up to investigate systematic abuses, identify the underlying causes of human rights violations and propose changes. In most cases, legal proceedings are then initiated against the protagonists regarded as bearing the most responsibility for the alleged violations. By granting victims reparations – material or symbolic – the state recognizes the damage inflicted and attempts to remedy it. By undertaking institutional reform (particularly in the security and justice sectors), it also commits to preventing any resurgence of serious human rights violations and fighting impunity.

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" Toward universal justice " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2019, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:

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