Extraordinary Crimes at Ordinary Times International Justice Beyond Crisis Situations

Sonja B. Starr, University of Michigan Law School


International criminal tribunals have focused exclusively on crimes arising from crisis situations - war crimes and mass atrocities. International criminal law scholarship has generally taken this crisis focus for granted, emphasizing the objectives of transitional justice in the wake of extraordinary social upheaval. Meanwhile, extremely serious crimes committed on a longer-term, daily basis have been excluded from the agenda of international criminal law. This article examines the history and impact of this crisis emphasis and explores alternative approaches in light of tribunals' institutional capacities and resource constraints. Using the principal example of catastrophic grand governmental corruption, it makes a practical, theoretical, and doctrinal case for international prosecution of some non-crisis-linked crimes, and concludes that tribunals' exclusive crisis focus is indefensible as a permanent condition. However, for reasons of legitimacy and political strategy, it recommends a gradual approach toward expanding that focus, taking advantage of the transformative effect of crises in building acceptance of legal principles that can then be applied in other situations.