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What is Impunity?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: May 17, 2024

When people are able to commit crimes without facing consequences, like punishment, this is called impunity. Impunity may be part of legal protections in a government’s laws, and may extend to those employed by the state like government officials, military personnel, or others. Alternately, a state may not possess laws that would punish those committing gross anti-humanitarian acts. The use of this concept within government is usually thought to be one of the easiest ways to support a constant stream of vicious human rights violations. When people can act without fear of punishment, they frequently act in ways that are exceptionally brutal, and such acts oppress freedom within the state, while shocking and disturbing other countries.

It is hoped that improvements in states changes impunity laws, or lack thereof, which punish those who have not be previously held accountable for horrendous actions like torture and murder. Especially when states have significant changes in power, the international legal community urges them not to extend protections to those granted impunity in the past. Many states are willing to create new laws and punish those who committed extreme crimes against humanity, if they can find and arrest them.

Sometimes other states will give protection to people with extremely unsavory pasts and continue to extend them impunity, even if a new government would prosecute them. The international legal community can view this unfavorably too, and it may takes steps to try to stop this behavior. In particular, those who clearly committed gross crimes against humanity may be arrested and tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

While it is the preference of this court to encourage states to prosecute their own citizens, the court can step in because it is empowered by the Geneva Convention, Convention Against Torture, and The Rome Statute, to prosecute people found to be significant human rights violators, no matter their country of origin. People prosecuted are usually heads of governments or high-ranking government officials. The ICC, when it can arrest and try someone, proves the international community little tolerates impunity. Rather, it suggests that a majority of countries demand accountability for horrible crimes.

In this, the ICC is not always completely successful. There are still many heads of state that commit human rights violations and continue to act with impunity. It can be difficult to enforce world rules on countries that are in complete control of dictators, or to act when countries are large and powerful.

Some have argued that some actions taken by the US after 9/11 were human rights violations and those who sanctioned those actions should be tried. It is unlikely that anyone associated with the government during this era will be prosecuted in national or world courts, though there are international and local groups that feel encouraging impunity in the US stands against the ideas of freedom upon which the country was founded. Others equally and passionately argue that the US acted within the scope of all international and national laws.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon254663 — On Mar 14, 2012

Impunity is a thing that needs to be done away with. Impunity resulted in many kenyans losing during the 2007 general elections.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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