Individual Criminal Responsibility for Human Rights Atrocities and Sanction Strategies

By Paust, Jordan J. | Texas International Law Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Individual Criminal Responsibility for Human Rights Atrocities and Sanction Strategies


Paust, Jordan J., Texas International Law Journal


Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy. By Steven R Ratner and Jason S. Abrams. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. xxxv, 368. Table of Contents, Notes, Appendices, Bibliography, Index.

"Can international criminal law provide meaningful sanction for atrocities by governments and others . . . ?"1 This enduring and significant question helps frame an important inquiry by Messrs. Ratner and Abrams concerning the concept of accountability and various aspects of ongoing sanction processes at the international, regional, and domestic levels. "All those involved in the administration of justice," they write, "require an understanding of the complex legal environment-both the scope of the law and the available mechanisms . . . `of accountability'-before undertaking any policy of individual accountability."2 They add: "the challenge is . . . to consider the mechanisms that might bring justice."3

With such ambitious goals before them, the authors have organized their work into four quite logical parts. Part I, containing more than a third of the text and footnotes, is entitled "Substantive Law," but provides commentary on the nature, sources, and evidences of international criminal law and necessarily interconnected human rights norms. Part I also contains sections surveying the characteristics of certain international crimes and more recent trends in development or denigration of their basic nature. Part II, a full third of the text and footnotes, is entitled "Mechanisms for Accountability." It provides important exploration of various national and international fora and sanction strategies that might improve accountability. Part III, some fifty-eight pages of text and footnotes, utilizes an excellent "Case Study [of] the Atrocities of the Khmer Rouge" in Cambodia to provide insightful application of identified crimes and concepts in a specific setting, and it may prove to be the most valuable portion of the overall study. The final section of the book provides concluding commentary wrapped in the challenging concept "Striving for Justice."

To generalize, the most valuable portions of the book are Parts II and III, although some of the surveys of particular crimes within Part I are quite useful and provide important commentary. Despite remarks on the book's jacket, treatment of the numerous specific topics identified by the authors and outlined in the table of contents is not "comprehensive" or frequently searching; but that does not detract from the book's overall value as a highly readable survey and commentary for both lawyers and general audience,4 concerning serious international crimes connected with human atrocities, recent trends in prescription, defenses, and sanction processes and strategies-with more detailed application to atrocities in Cambodia. Recent efforts to constitute a tribunal to address such atrocities in Cambodia and, more generally, to create a permanent International Criminal Court by treaty at the end of this summer certainly make this work "a timely contribution,"5 and overall, it is a commendable, often excellent study.

There are, however, certain difficulties. Some difficulties may reflect the effort to provide a survey of certain topics as opposed to comprehensive inquiry. This is notable, for example, in Chapter 6, which addresses certain general types of responsibility (e.g., conspiracy, complicity, leader responsibility, and attempt), possible defenses, claims to immunity, and domestic statutes of limitation in merely twelve pages, often with attention to potentially complex aspects in only a paragraph or two.6 In this instance, one should not fault the effort to be concise, especially in view of the overall goals of the authors and of target audiences. Even then, some statements are in error and some are misleading. When terse remarks are merely controversial, readers and the authors have something to disagree about or to discuss in future dialogue-and this might enrich debate and the development of legal norms and processes. …

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