Crimes against humanity and international law: justice without borders?

Sunday 31 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Henry Moore Gallery Lunchtime Debates

Should international courts have the power to investigate and prosecute people for crimes against humanity? Given the precedent of the Nuremburg trials of Nazi leaders, most people would probably say yes. Over recent years we have become familiar with high profile trials relating to Bosnia and various African nations. The International Criminal Court (ICC) and the ad hoc United Nations tribunals established in the wake of particular conflicts are praised as positive steps toward a more just world. There are criticisms of international law, but less on principle than in terms of its current one-sided application as ‘victors’ justice’. There are qualms about an apparent double standard, whereby the ICC has so far concentrated exclusively on African countries, while other states – such as the US or UK – seem immune from prosecution. Indeed, the US still refuses to recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction and has been widely criticised for failing to apprehend those accused of being war criminals.

Journalists and campaigners have championed the prosecution of figures such as former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. There are regular calls for Western leaders to be put on trial for their part in the 2003 Iraq war, with Tony Blair and others branded ‘war criminals’. More recently, authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens announced they’ve asked lawyers to prepare a case against the Pope for crimes against humanity recognised by the International Criminal Court. Earlier this year Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, cancelled her visit to Britain for fear of being arrested under a warrant obtained by human rights campaigners.

There are more fundamental questions, though. Potentially the pursuit of ‘justice’ can destabilise domestic politics – as in the case of Sudan, where the indictment of the country’s president by the ICC has raised the possibility of legally-enforced ‘regime change’. And where does the authority of international courts and tribunals come from? They are praised for ‘ending impunity’ – the ability of dictatorial regimes to do whatever they want – but international courts often seem to lack legitimacy in the countries where they pursue prosecutions. In democratic states, the legitimacy of national courts derives from citizens, whose representatives make the laws, but who decides on the norms of international law? Whose interests do these courts serve? And in a world divided into states with different degrees of power, can international courts ever dispense impartial, universal justice?

Listen to session audio:


Jonathan Cooper
human rights barrister, Doughty Street Chambers; editor, European Human Rights Law Review

Nick Donovan
head of campaigns and policy, Aegis Trust

Dr John Laughland
director of studies, Institute of Democracy and Cooperation

Philip Hammond
professor of media and communications, London South Bank University

Produced by
Philip Hammond professor of media and communications, London South Bank University
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