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The international legal community is beset today with talk of accountability. Governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and scholars speak of the need to hold individuals responsible for official acts that violate the most cherished of international human rights. Some study the nature of various infractions with an eye toward codification; others seek to create or engage mechanisms for trying or otherwise punishing individuals. Their common mission is based on a shared understanding that international law has a role to play not only in setting standards for governments, non-state actors, and their agents, but in prescribing the consequences of a failure to meet those standards.

To understand the promises and limitations of individual accountability as a means to protect human dignity requires treating it as a discrete subject of international law. As such, it demands appraisal of a complex amalgam of law and a wide spectrum of sanctioning processes that transcend orthodox divisions of subjects within international law. Its theory, doctrine, and practice spring from legal sources and events both ancient and modern; and ultimately an appreciation of the topic turns considerably on insights beyond international law, whether political or philosophical in origin. Before any examination of the substantive law and mechanisms can proceed, we begin with the evolution of this concept and the legal threads involved.


This material was originally published in Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy. edited by Steven R. Ratner, Jason S. Abrams, and James L. Bischoff and has been reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. For permission to reuse this material, please visit