What is International Criminal Law?

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  • Written By: Beth Taylor
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Images By: Ruslan Olinchuk, Recuerdos De Pandora, Nejron Photo, Lesniewski
  • Last Modified Date: 22 January 2020
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International criminal law is used in cases such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. These crimes generally are committed against citizens of countries rather than governments, but the crimes are serious enough to cause concern even among nations whose citizens were not targeted. There are no clearly defined parameters in international criminal law, but many nations are able to agree on basic principles of behavior and what is acceptable or unacceptable. When an action is considered to have violated international criminal law, a tribunal — a temporary court — might be established to deal with specific issues. Tribunals have been convened to address things such as the actions of the Nazis during World Word II and genocide in Rwanda.

Many international criminal law tribunals are conducted by the United Nations, an organization of which more than 180 countries are members. The United Nation's International Court of Justice is located in the Netherlands, a neutral country that does not take sides in international affairs. Although tribunals can be held at the International Court of Justice, this is not required.

Perhaps the best-known example in modern history of an international criminal law tribunal is the Nuremberg Trials. After World War II, the international criminal court prosecuted former Nazi soldiers and Nazi doctors. The Nuremberg trials lasted from 1945 to 1949. The indictments at the Nuremberg trials included conspiracy to wage aggressive war, waging aggressive war, war crimes and crimes against humanity.


The Nuremberg trials were held in Nuremberg, Germany. After these international trials came to an end, more Nazi war criminals were tried in the same courtroom, but each of the subsequent trials was held by one country instead of the international community. For example, the United States prosecuted Nazi doctors for cruel medical experiments on children and adults, and Great Britain tried those responsible for running the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Another well-known tribunal was held to address genocide in Rwanda, a country on the continent of Africa. The people in the area belonged to different tribes, and when battling for land and supremacy, one group attempted to completely kill off another tribe. An international criminal law tribunal was convened to address the grievances of the surviving victims of attempted genocide.


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