international criminal law

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International criminal law is the field of international law that regulates the behavior of states, organizations, and individuals operating across boundaries in committing international crimes. International criminal law also governs the commission of serious crimes occurring on the territory of sovereign states where those crimes constitute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, or other violations of jus cogens norms. 

International criminal law is practiced by and prosecuted within international criminal tribunals. There are two categories of international criminal tribunals: 

  1. Permanent tribunals. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is the only permanent tribunal established in the world. This court has a mandate to investigate and prosecute cases worldwide, but its jurisdiction is limited to the countries that have accepted its jurisdiction. For instance, the United States does not recognize the International Criminal Court jurisdiction; thus, neither its government nor its citizens are subject to the International Criminal Court jurisdiction. 
  2. Ad-hoc or temporary tribunals. These tribunals deal with specific national and international conflicts and the crimes committed by the armed parties involved in them. They have temporary mandates, which are dissolved after accomplishing their objectives. Among the most famous tribunals are the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg which prosecuted and condemned Germany’s military and political leaders after World War II, and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Tribunal, which sentenced Japanese leaders for their involvement in their actions against the United States and its allies. Currently, ad-hoc tribunals as the Special Tribunal of Lebanon are still operating. 

The following is a non-exhaustive list of crimes under international criminal law:

  • Genocide
  • War Crimes
  • Crimes against humanity
  • Human trafficking
  • Piracy
  • Terrorism

[Last updated in May of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]