International humanitarian law and policy on

Criminal repression of IHL violations

When violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) occur, states are under an obligation to prosecute alleged offenders. Domestic courts therefore play an important role in enforcing IHL and limiting impunity. Violations of IHL can be prosecuted by various international criminal tribunals as well as by national jurisdictions.

International criminal jurisdiction

Since World War II, the international community has progressively developed a system of international jurisdictions, which complement the jurisdictions of domestic courts, to try people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is a dual system with ad hoc and other internationalized tribunals set up after specific conflicts on the one hand and the International Criminal Court on the other. In the wake of World War II, the victorious powers set up criminal tribunals in Germany and Japan to try war crimes committed during the hostilities against civilians and allied combatants. Despite reservations about the victors taking such an initiative, the horrific nature of the crimes committed, in particular the mass-killings of Jews and other minorities, meant that there was wide public support for the trials. Unlike in previous wars, almost half the victims of World War II were civilians. As a result, in August 1949 the international community also actively supported extending the scope of international humanitarian law (IHL), mainly via treaty law, to cover civilians more effectively. 

The ICRC welcomed both the development of IHL through the adoption of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and the establishment of the obligation to exercise universal jurisdiction over grave breaches of their provisions, as a means to end impunity for war crimes. Almost five decades later, the end of the Cold War and new conflicts in Europe and Africa, which claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian victims, convinced the United Nations Security Council to consider the necessity of establishing ad hoc international criminal tribunals once more. The armed conflict in the Balkans led the UN to set up an international criminal tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, to try those accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Most prominent among the accused was the former president of Yugoslavia, Mr Slobodan Milosevic. 

Soon after, the UN also established a tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, to punish violations of IHL and other international crimes committed in Rwanda in the early 1990s. Since then, special courts have also been set up to prosecute domestic and international crimes. Examples of such mixed tribunals can be found in Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and, most recently, Lebanon. These international (and mixed) criminal tribunals can contribute to the development and clarification of IHL and human rights law. They can also strengthen respect for IHL by providing justice for victims, act as a deterrent in future armed conflicts and contribute to reconciliation and reconstruction by establishing the truth of what happened during a conflict. The decision by the international community in 1998 to establish the International Criminal Court was also an attempt to address these concerns by providing a means to deal with cases that states are unable or unwilling to prosecute.

Ad hoc tribunals

International tribunals have long enabled states and others to settle disputes. However, it was the Nuremberg trials held after World War II that marked the beginning of ad hoc tribunals that could try individuals accused of the core international crimes: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.