Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice

Those who commit crimes on a large or systematic scale should be held accountable. ICTJ’s Criminal Justice program seeks to strengthen criminal justice initiatives worldwide by providing technical assistance to those engaged in complex investigations and prosecutions and by sharing lessons learned from our field programs and research.

Accused Industrialists at Nuremberg Trials—often seen as important precursors to transitional justice measures.

The investigation and prosecution of international crimes—including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes—is a fundamental component of transitional justice.

It has roots in international legal obligations that can be traced back to the Nuremberg trials, and continue with the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR).

Investigations and trials of powerful leaders (whether political or military) help strengthen the rule of law and send a strong signal that such crimes will not be tolerated in a rights-respecting society.

Trials remain a key demand of victims. When conducted in ways that reflect victims’ needs and expectations, they can play a vital role in restoring their dignity and delivering justice.

But prosecutions cannot achieve justice in isolation. The large-scale nature of such crimes means that they often cannot be processed through the ordinary criminal justice system—generating an "impunity gap." Effective prosecution strategies for large-scale crimes often focus on the planners and organizers of crimes, rather than those of lower rank or responsibility.

Implementing prosecution strategies with other initiatives—such as reparations programs, institutional reform, and truth-seeking—can help fill the "impunity gap" by addressing crimes with large numbers of victims and perpetrators.

Domestic Prosecutions

Prosecutions for international crimes have more potential for impact when they are held domestically, within the society where the crimes occurred. However, societies emerging from conflict or in transition may lack the political will to prosecute these crimes, and legal systems may be in disarray.

Even sophisticated legal systems—which mainly deal with ordinary crimes—may lack the capacity to effectively address such crimes.

These problems may require international assistance that draws on best practices from elsewhere—for instance through “hybrid” courts or tribunals, composed of international and domestic justice actors. Such courts have been created in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia, Timor-Leste and Cambodia.

International Criminal Court

In 2002, the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC investigates and prosecutes individuals responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since July 1, 2002—in cases where countries are unwilling or unable to do so.

Under the Rome Statute’s “complementarity” principle, domestic courts continue to have the duty to deliver justice—so that the ICC remains a court of last resort. In recent years, domestic courts have increasingly taken up this role.

ICTJ’s Role

We provide expert assistance, analysis and advice to governments, civil society, and justice actors or institutions. We share lessons learned and best practices from criminal justice initiatives worldwide.

We have particular expertise on how domestic legal systems can adapt to investigate and prosecute large-scale or systematic crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

  • In Uganda, Kenya and DRC we analyze and recommend ways in which to strengthen domestic prosecutions.
  • In Colombia, we provide legal support to justice actors and victim representatives in criminal proceedings against former paramilitaries under the Justice and Peace Law (2005).
  • In Argentina, we provide technical advice to state prosecutors and local NGOs working on criminal prosecutions.
  • In Bangladesh, we analyze and provide input into the International Crimes Tribunal initiative to try widespread crimes that happened in 1971.
  • In Afghanistan, we assisted the Afghan Independent Human Rights Committee in documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity from 1978–2001.
  • We’ve analyzed and reported on, or provided amicus briefs in important domestic trials of former political leaders and their impact on the transitions, such as the trials of Saddam Hussein or Alberto Fujimori.
  • We’ve done comparative research on the political, legal and policy aspects of hybrid tribunals in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia, Kosovo, East Timor and Lebanon.
  • We’ve prepared various policy tools, including briefs for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on domestic and hybrid prosecutions.