Transitional Justice and State Responsibility

If international atrocity crimes are acts so egregious that their impunity cannot be legally tolerated, why don’t we punish States that commit them? I explore this question in my recent article A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? Transitional Justice and the Effacement of State Accountability for International Crimes, published in the Fordham International Law Journal. States and individuals each may be responsible under international law for the same incidents of mass atrocities: individuals under international criminal law and States under the law of state responsibility. Yet when the international community mobilizes to sanction State-perpetrated atrocities, it moves to punish individual perpetrators and side steps States. For example, a 2014 proposal before the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC made no mention of legal responsibility of the Syrian State for violation of obligations erga omnes. I argue that part of the reason the international community prefers enforcing international criminal responsibility over holding states accountable is transitional justice.

Transitional justice has emerged as the dominant normative framework for how the international community responds to mass violence. Within transitional justice, the legacy of the Nuremberg trials has produced individual criminal accountability as the highest form of legal accountability for atrocities. Transitional justice rejects punishing States for atrocities as illiberal (collective punishment) and illegitimate (lack of positive law). Advocates justified the ad hoc criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda by arguing that punishing individual war criminals was necessary to avoid collective guilt and would promote reconciliation. Transitional justice has focused on legal accountability for individuals and needs to consider what State responsibility offers as a normative and practical matter. Without legal accountability, States enjoy moral and legal impunity for their crimes. States escape their legal obligations to repair the injury they cause and to institute reforms that secure a fuller measure of justice and peace.

The pursuit of State responsibility for atrocity crimes furthers the aims of transitional justice in important conceptual and practical ways. Accountability for international crimes is a bedrock international principle around which the United Nations has organized international transitional justice policy. Rule of law ideals have thoroughly infused the international justice discourse. Yet international rule of law principles apply equally to States. So when, in the name of accountability for international crimes, transitional justice effectively ignores State legal responsibility, transitional justice undermines the international commitment to rule of law.

In the case of mass atrocities, States violate norms of the highest order—genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes—and obligations owed to the international community as a whole. Such transgressions deserve to be acknowledged as such. State-perpetrated mass slaughter of civilians is conducted in furtherance of a State policy, and relies on multiple collective dimensions of the State to advance this criminal pursuit. To the extent that transitional justice pursues international criminal sanctions, these acts when carried out by States also should be identified as wrongs, and offending States should be held accountable.

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