Just Atonement has succeeded in publishing a series of recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council, and we’re proud of this small victory and incremental step toward reducing immunity for high ranking government officials who commit war crimes, engage in acts of aggression, or test the boundaries of nascent international law related to the sanctity of human rights. Read the text of our paper here, and skim the question and answer session below.
Why do government leaders rarely face legal penalties after committing acts that violate human rights?
We are often asked why government leaders are rarely held accountable for war crimes and acts of international aggression, and why these leaders are protected by domestic laws that separate personal accountability from “official actions”, or actions they engaged in for the presumed good of the nation while holding public office.
The answer is that many times these officials are presumed to be acting at the behest and in the best interest of their electorate, judges and courts oftentimes hold that government leaders are entitled to immunity, even when they for example, commit acts of torture, aggression, or violations of international treaties and charters.
When do human rights violations become subject to trial and punishment?
According to international law, immunities of government leaders are weakened or removed after the perpetrator leaves office. At that point, an act of aggression may become subject to penalty depending on the motivation behind the act. For example, a government leader may be accused of acting in a personal, or non-official, capacity if he or she exploited a government resource to enrich a family business while in office. Any act that cannot be connected to the benefit of the state may—after the governing period ends—be considered a personal action.
Are there some real-life cases in which the boundaries between the personal and professional have been tested?
Yes! These cases and precedents are the subject of our short paper. In these four pages, one of the cases we summarize is the case of Saleh v. Bush, in which the plaintiff and litigant intended to hold individual members of the Bush administration accountable for the actions of the Iraq War.
Why did we submit this paper?
Our paper presents a list of recommendations to the UN Human Right Council based on the implications of the cases we describe (Saleh v. Bush, Congo v. Belgium, the Pinochet Case). Just Atonement believes that government leaders must be subject, as individuals, to the statutes of international law forbidding war crimes and acts of aggression. Immunity from such crimes must be lifted in order to protect the rule of law and give merit to treaties and international charters forbidding these actions.