From Nuremberg to the Haag Von Nürnberg nach den Haag The cry for justice | From Nuremberg to the Hague

The cry for justice

Civil society carries the flame

With the outbreak of the Cold War, it became clear that an agreement on outlawing core international crimes was not going to be reached in the near future. But war crimes, mass murder and other serious human rights violations continued to be committed. Between the end of World War II and the close of the 20th century, war, civil strife and political mass murder has claimed the lives of around 50 million people.

It was above all civil society groups, victims associations, human rights organizations and religious groupings that sustained the call for justice in view of the failures of national and international judicial systems. Even in situations that seemed hopeless, they did not give up hope. They sought prosecutions and demanded that the perpetrators be punished.

Truth Commissions

In the 1970s and thereafter, many countries established “truth commissions” at times when judicial authorities could not or would not perform their functions. These sometimes had governmental support or UN participation, but some were a purely civil-society affair, and attempted to at least understand and reveal the truth about crimes committed public at home and abroad. Argentina, Chile and South Africa are well-known examples of countries where such commissions were instituted. But many other countries also availed themselves of this instrument. The work and results of these Commissions have not always been satisfactory, and their recommendations have frequently been inadequately implemented.

Impunity: a human rights violation

Even before the international criminal tribunals were established, the United Nations had in principle begun to combat impunity for core international crimes. In 1991, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities tasked French legal expert Louis Joinet with drawing up a report on the subject. After extensive consultations, his report “Question of the impunity of perpetrators of human rights violations” was accepted by the Sub-Commission in 1997.

One of the principles contained therein states: “The right to justice entails obligations for the State: to investigate violations, to prosecute the perpetrators and, if their guilt is established, to punish them.” Impunity for core international crimes constitutes a denial of this right to justice, and is thus of itself a violation of human rights.

In 2005, the Commission on Human Rights adopted a new version of these principles, revised and updated by Diane Orentlicher and entitled “principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity”. These principles are today internationally recognized guidelines for combating impunity. The ICC and other international courts have an important role to play in this vision and regard.

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