(Ab)using International Law: Over-Extending the use of Crimes Against Humanity

Abhimanyu George Jain is a graduate of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, India where he developed a strong interest in public international law. In this post,  Abhimanyu shares with us his thoughts on the expansion of the use of “crimes against humanity” in the context of the Anders Breivik case and the possibility of prosecuting the Pope. 

Should the pope be charged with crimes against humanity?

(Ab)using International Law: Over-Extending the use of Crimes Against Humanity

Exhorting his generals to all sorts of depravities against the people of Poland, Adolf Hitler, once famously said, “who…speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Fortunately for us, we live today in a world where we do “speak of the Armenians”. Today we talk in real terms of the possibility and desirability of prescribing and enforcing individual responsibility for the most shocking human acts; we talk of engineering the reunification of shattered societies into organic wholes through transitional justice.

As with any other developing skill and ability, however, familiarity breeds contempt, and contempt, misuse. The misuse I speak of is the inappropriate stretching of the concepts of international criminal law to situations and actions where they have no real role. In particular, I refer to two recent proposals concerning the application of crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome Statute – the first, in the case of Mr. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian militant extremist; the second, in the case of he Vatican, as recently suggested by the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR). To be clear from the outset, neither of these proposals has even a reasonable chance of success. They do, however, represent the thoughts and actions of some academics and practitioners, and represent to some extent current understandings of these concepts.

I shall first briefly discuss these proposals, and then explain my grouse against them.

The Proposals

In the case of Mr. Breivik, news reports have suggested that Norwegian prosecutors were contemplating charging him with crimes against humanity for his recent militant actions. For certain obvious reasons, chiefly, the complete inapplicability of the international concept of crimes against humanity, this proposal was abandoned. First, the international concept of crimes against humanity as defined in Art. 7 of the Rome Statute of the ICC requires a ‘widespread or systematic attack’, which these attacks were not. Second, Art. 7 requires the perpetrator to be acting pursuant to an ‘organisational plan or policy’, which again was not the case. For an excellent analysis of this proposal, see William Schabas’ blog post, here.

The third concerns the not particularly novel suggestion that Vatican officials be tried under international criminal law for their role in covering up instances of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. In the latest such attempt, the CCR, acting on behalf of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), has requested the ICC’s Prosecutor to exercise his propriu motu authority under Art. 15 of the Rome against high-level officials at the Vatican. Again, this does not meet the definitional requirements of crimes against humanity. Post facto concealment, while definitely deplorable, does not meet the requirement of being ‘an attack directed against any civilian population’, ‘pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack’. It seems quite clear that there is a definite requirement of overt involvement and control. This very basic objection is supplemented by reasonable questions concerning the authority of the ICC over the Vatican, a non-State entity which is not party to the Rome Statute. For an excellent analysis of the legal infirmities of this move, see Dov Jacobs’ blog post, here.

The Grouse

It might reasonably be asked: so what if it is a stretch? Reasonably, is it such a problem if these concepts are being adopted to the extent that efforts are being made to extend their application to other situations? Doesn’t this in some way represent an incorporation of international legal norms into municipal legal practice and everyday legal concerns, and, to that extent, an internalisation of international law?

This is undoubtedly true. The increasing popularity and acceptance of these concepts and their meaning is definitely desirable. But beyond this superficial gain, I have three major problems.

The first is trivial, but a valid legal concern nonetheless. This relates to the distortion of the contents of these concepts, and the subsequently flawed process of legal characterisation. In other words, these legal concepts don’t fit here, and their forced extension is no more than an incorrect application of the law. Many heinous, depraved acts have been committed in each of these instances. But the legal concepts proposed to be applied in response just don’t fit. Mr. Breivik and the Pope have not committed crimes against humanity. The application of these legal concepts to these incidents is incorrect as a matter of legal classification.

The second relates to the purpose of these legal concepts. My concern is that their indiscriminate application creates the risk of diluting their import. Let me explain this in greater detail.

International crimes do not, per se, identify new crimes. Rape as a war crime or a crime against humanity or as part of a genocidal campaign is no different from rape in municipal law. It is still rape (subject of course to variations in legal definitions across jurisdictions, and assuming, not unreasonably, the presence of a common core of elements to the crime of rape across jurisdictions). It is in its perpetration in the course of an armed conflict and on a large scale, or in an organised manner and on a large scale, or as part of a campaign to obliterate the existence of a particular group, that rape acquires the hues of an international crime. In very plain terms, international crimes are ordinary crimes but at a much more heinous level. This is the rationale underlying international crimes – crimes so heinous that their effect resonates across borders, and against which all of mankind has an interest in acting.

International crimes were deliberately intended and created to cater to only the apex of the pyramid that comprises undesirable human activity. For ordinary crimes, there are ordinary, domestic laws. For extraordinary crimes, there are extraordinary international laws.

In this context, the stretching of these international concepts to cover undesirable domestic acts dilutes the gravity and the ‘shock value’ associated with these concepts. This ‘shock value’ is important, because often responses to real situations of this sort require concerted international action. Diluting the gravity of these concepts dilutes the possibility of such action. This is the real problem with this indiscriminate usage, not the incorrect application per se (setting aside formalistic legal concerns). At the end of the day, Mr. Breiviks’s actions demand justice just as much as the Bosnian genocide. The problem is that Mr. Breivik can be brought to justice in any one of several ways. But there are only limited international tools to redress the Bosnian genocide. The ‘shock value’ of these international tools should be preserved for international situations; it should not be abused to generate publicity for other crimes.

An injured man following the blasts in Oslo. (AFP/ Scanpix)

My third problem concerns the obfuscation of these concepts. As I have already mentioned, the utility of these concepts lies to a great extent in their ability to instigate concerted international action. Their indiscriminate misuse in any and every situation can only cloud these concepts; it should further be noted here that these concepts, as a necessary function of international law in general, are already complex and pulled in multiple directions by the requirements of adherence to state practice. For as prominent a concept as ‘crimes against humanity’, it is still possible to identify differences in the Rome Statute of the ICC and the Statute of the ICTY. It is, in my opinion, undesirable to add to this confusion through the uninhibited and activist modification of these international concepts.


In summing up, I would not advocate the undue restriction of these international law concepts. They must be allowed to serve their intended purpose, and they must be allowed to grow beyond that as well. For an example of a very sound extension of the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ to the Somalian famine, see this post on this blog, or this interesting suggestion to borrow from transitional justice mechanisms in framing a response to the recent London riots. Such extension must, however, respect the contents of these concepts, their intended purpose, and their scope for fulfilling those purposes.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Crimes against humanity, Human Rights, International Criminal Court (ICC), Justice, Norway, Vatican. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to (Ab)using International Law: Over-Extending the use of Crimes Against Humanity

  1. Venkata Vemuri says:

    What is this international law concept that you are talking about protecting from dilution when across the world every Tom, Dick and Harry is internationalising domestic events for their own interest? Oil-and-war-monger Bush killed Saddam to hide American economic bankruptcy. The British continue to use Blair as a mid-east peace warrior despite his proven political infamy. The Indian government flays Saarc partners one by one depending on how strong an internal crisis is. That’s how Putin managed his despotic show in Russia all those years ago.
    The word ‘international’ is a joke. A charade. Like the money-hungry NGOs. The UN is impotent. It lives on alms from the first world and is beholden to them. Anything the UN or its bodies do, therefore, is hardly ‘international’. The ECHR is a joke so much so that many countries, particularly the UK, want to shut it down. The ICJ is another glorious example. What Mobarak did in and inside Egypt is a case for Egyptian courts. Who is deciding that his crimes are international? The same people who decided that killing Saddam Hussein is international. The same guys who will kill their mothers to open a Macdonalds deep inside China.
    Catholic priests sodomising kids is truly an international crime. It happens in every country where these missionaries are (no apologies to those who are decent but do not raise their voice against the offenders) — or for that matter whereever you have preachers living in dungeons and attempting to teach kids any kind of religion. I know about them in India. And the UK and several European countries. The Pope has to pay. The buck stops with him, or does it not? After all, didn’t somebody decide that Saddam had to pay? Or that Gaddafi will soon pay? For ‘international crimes’, I mean.
    What is happening is ‘international law’ is only the latest game these rich boys play to dock money and power. Simple as that. They did that thanks to the Silk Route for centuries, thanks to the IMF in the last century, thanks to Islam in this century. They internationalised everything. They are internationalising law now. Nothing but another facet of good old imperialism.
    The best way to camouflage anything as ‘universal’ or ‘international’ is to package it in such language that nobody can understand. Just like our law books. And these concepts are propagated by lawyers who are in rhythm only when they think and write equally obfuscatingly.
    With respect to the legal community, there is an urgent need for you youngsters to rebuild the lost honour, responsibility and trust of your profession which have been sacrificed at the altar of legal luminaries who made it their lives’ ambition to give legal cover for whatever the political bosses of the day wanted to do. Such ambitions are equally international.

    • Jasbir Jain says:

      There does seem to be different treatment being meted out to individual criminals nad to those participants in a collective crime. Yes Mr Jain , you are correct. We do talk of the Armenians and still talk of the holocaust. But there are other collective crimes that those in power push under the carpet. For instance the Gujarat genocide where the machinery of law is cowed down or manipulated by those in power. At times law has to reinvent itself to change the human fixity.
      Your arguments go along way.

  2. Pingback: (Ab)using International Law: Over-Extending the use of Crimes Against Humanity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s