Improving compliance with the law prohibiting genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity : recalling the human factor


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




International humanitarian law, international criminal law and international human rights law all share the common goal of seeking to regulate the behavior of international actors in relation to the three most serious offences under international law - genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. International legal rules, processes and institutions within these three areas of law represent the international community's ongoing quest to address and prevent the commission of these crimes - to create "a more humane world under law." International law has therefore been relied upon as the primary - arguably exclusive - mechanism for prescribing rules of conduct and for enforcing prescribed rules. It is clear, however, that the legal framework alone has not been able to bridge the gap between internationally agreed standards and substantive practice on the part of international actors. That international law comprises only a partial solution to the problem of human rights atrocities is well recognized. It is argued here that the international community's preoccupation with international law as the means for regulating State and individual behavior in this area has in fact contributed to continuing problems of non-compliance as much as it has assisted in engendering compliance with the law. In other words, law is as much a part of the problem as it is a part of the solution. It is argued that the international community must look beyond the law, to non-traditional, informal influences operating alongside the law, in order to move towards the goal of effective enforcement of the law prohibiting genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Based on Constructivist thinking, four key strategies - departures from traditional Positivist-Realist conceptions of the international legal system - are suggested as focal points for enhancing compliance with the laws in this area, these being: active differentiation between the target subjects of the law; utilization of the dual power of international humanitarian law; employing social norms and ethical values as motivations for compliance with the law; and embracing the informal compliance-inducing activities and powers of non-state actors. Applying these strategies to the humanitarian law enforcement project, a reversal of traditional perceptions of the influence of ethics and law in relation to individual and State target subjects respectively, is proposed as a future direction for enhancing compliance and furthering the prevention project in relation to genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Genocide -- Moral and ethical aspects; War (International law); War crimes -- Law and legislation; Crimes against humanity

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