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International Justice

Guide from the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis.

Significant Cases

The following highlights selected significant cases conducted by international courts:

Nuremberg Trials

The Nuremberg Trails, held from 1945 to 1949, prosecuted accused German war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany. The trials were seen as a key influence on the development of international criminal law. The Harvard Law School Library established a Nuremberg Trials Project, which makes available approximately one million pages of documents relating to the trial of military and political leaders of Nazi Germany. In addition, the Washington University Global Studies Law Review devoted an issue to “Judgment at Nuremberg” upon its 60th anniversary. 

Media Case

In December 2003, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted three members of the Rwanda media for genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy, crimes against humanity, extermination, and persecution. ICTR judges said they found that the three men in radio broadcasts during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 “used the institutions they controlled and coordinated their efforts towards the common goal: the destruction of the Tutsi population.” It marked the first time since the Nuremberg Trials that an international court convicted journalists of inciting genocide. A summary of the case can be found here.

Akayesu Case
The Akayesu case decided by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1998 was the first in which an international tribunal was called upon to interpret the definition of genocide as defined in the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). The Chamber also defined the crime of rape. It underscored the fact that rape and sexual violence may constitute genocide in the same way as any other act of serious bodily or mental harm, as long as such acts were committed with the intent to destroy a particular group targeted as such. For a press release from Coalition for Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations about the case, click here.  For a New York Times editorial on the case, click here.

Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

The former Yugoslav president was the first head of state to be tried for war crimes. After Milosevic was first indicted in 1999 for atrocities committed in Kosovo, prosecutors later added further charges, including genocide, related to earlier conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia. His trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity began in 2002 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He died in his cell on March 11, 2006, the trial thus ending without a verdict. A public archive of the trial is available here.

Trial of Radovan Karadzic

The former Bosnian Serb leader was indicted in 1995 for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He was a fugitive until his capture in July 2008. A case information sheet provided by the UN can be found here. A news account from the BBC on the capture of Karadzic is available here.

Trial of Charles Taylor

Taylor is currently being tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The former president of Liberia, Taylor was indicted on March 7, 2003, on a 17-count indictment for crimes against humanity, violations of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions and of Additional Protocol II (commonly known as war crimes), and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. For more on the case, click here.

Medellin case

In early 2008 the United States Supreme Court decided Medellin v. Texas, a complex case that raises broad questions about future enforcement of US treaty obligations, the status of International Court of Justice rulings in domestic judicial proceedings, human rights concerns for defendants accused of capital crimes, powers of the federal executive branch in American law, and issues of constitutional federalism as applied to criminal procedure.

The Medellin controversy grew out of concerns raised in US and international judicial forums by various countries over the past decade. Mexico complained to the ICJ that Texas and other states had failed to notify some 51 Mexican nationals, sitting on death row, of their right to consult with consular officials in accordance with Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR). In its 2004 ruling (known as the Avena decision), the ICJ ordered US courts to “review and reconsider” these convictions, including that of José Medellín. President Bush, citing his executive powers, directed the state of Texas to comply with the ICJ ruling. But Texas rejected these interventions, saying that the consular treaty issue had not been raised in a timely fashion under rules of Texas criminal procedure. The US Supreme Court upheld the Texas position in March 2008, and on August 5th José Medellín was executed. In January 2009, an ICJ judgment found that the United States had breached the court’s July 2008 order not to execute Medellin pending further review of his trial. For information on the case from the Death Penalty Information Center, click here.

Case of Von Hannover v. Germany

The European Court of Human Rights held that a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to respect for private life) occurred in a complaint by Princess Caroline von Hannover, who claimed that photographs taken of her infringed her right to protection of her private life. A summary of the decision is here.

The Beef Hormone Case

In 1995, in one of the first cases before the WTO, the United States challenged Europe's right to ban U.S. beef. Before the establishment of the WTO, the United States had been imposing duties against European products in retaliation for the beef ban. The WTO ruled in 1997 that the beef ban was not based on scientific evidence, as required under international trade rules. The ruling was upheld on appeal in 1998. For information on the case provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, click here.

“Disappearances” cases

In the late 1980s, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights handed down decisions requiring the Honduran government to compensate the families of victims of extra judicial killings and forced disappearances that occurred during the 1980s. One of these cases, Velásquez Rodríguez, was the first to articulate the duty to prevent, investigate, and punish human rights violations alongside the state’s duty to make reparations to individual victims. The Court also has ruled on disappearances cases in other countries in the region. For more information on disappearances cases, see the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons and a 2008 Amnesty International report on forced disappearances.