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date: 19 January 2021

Human Rights and Penal Policylocked

  • Joachim J. SavelsbergJoachim J. SavelsbergDepartment of Sociology, University of Minnesota; Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study
  •  and Suzy McElrathSuzy McElrathCollege of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota

Summary

Structural and cultural changes in the modernization process, combined with contingent historical events, gave rise to a human rights regime. It is codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated after World War II and the Holocaust. Yet, only the gravest of human rights violations have been criminalized. First steps were taken beginning in the 19th century with The Hague and Geneva Conventions, constituting the Laws of Armed Conflict. They were followed by the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), and eventually the Rome Statute (1998) on which the first permanent International Criminal Court is based. Some scholars even observe a justice cascade. Enforcement of the norms entailed in the above legal documents benefits from opportunities such as increases in international interdependencies, the buildup of international organizations, and the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations in the human rights realm. Challenges arise from partially competing principles such as conflict settlement and survival of suffering populations as cultivated by social fields such as humanitarianism and diplomacy and from a lack of law enforcement. While international institutions play a crucial role, much international law is implemented through domestic courts. International penal law pertaining to human rights has affected domestic policymaking in the human rights realm but also nation-level policies pertaining to the punishment of common crimes. Finally, debates continue to rage regarding the effects of the criminalization of grave human rights violations. Proponents have thus far focused on potential deterrent effects, but a new line of thought has begun to take cultural effects seriously. Its representatives identify a redefinition of those responsible for mass violence as criminal perpetrators and substantial representational power of international criminal law against those who bear responsibility for the gravest of human rights violations.

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