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Obstacles to justice

By Claire Mallinson - posted Friday, 28 May 2010

To be accountable is to be held responsible for an action you have taken or failed to take, one that has a direct consequence on others. It is a broad concept. There is political accountability, tested, for example, in elections. And there is moral accountability, measured perhaps by a society’s values.

International human rights standards are focused primarily on establishing legal accountability. People have rights that must be set out in, and protected by, law; those in power have duties, also established in law, to respect, protect and fulfil individual rights.

In 2009, for the first time ever, a warrant was issued for the arrest of a sitting head of state by the International Criminal Court (ICC). President Al Bashir of Sudan was named in an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer of population, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes (for the targeting of civilians).


This was a landmark event. It is now harder for perpetrators of the worst crimes to feel confident that they will escape justice.

But too often powerful governments are blocking advances in international justice by standing above the law on human rights, shielding allies from criticism and acting only when politically convenient.

In this instance, the African Union’s refusal to cooperate on the ICC warrant, despite the nightmare of violence that has affected hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur, was a stark example of governmental failure to put justice before politics.

The Amnesty International Report 2010: State of the World’s Human Rights, launched this week, documents abuses across 159 countries in 2009, abuses for which perpetrators were too often not held accountable.

It details a year in which millions of people suffered human rights violations while accountability and justice were a remote ideal for too many.

Amnesty International’s research records torture or other ill-treatment in at least 111 countries, unfair trials in at least 55 countries, restrictions on free speech in at least 96 countries, prisoners of conscience imprisoned in at least 48 countries and 18 countries executed their citizens.


Around the world, including the Asia Pacific region, a callous disregard for civilians has marked conflicts, space for independent voices shrank, migrants were exploited, women suffered disproportionately and people were pushed into poverty.

One would be hard pressed to imagine a more complete failure to hold to account those who abuse human rights than the international community’s paralysis over Sri Lanka.

Between January and May 2009, some 300,000 Sri Lankans were trapped on a narrow strip of land between the retreating Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the advancing Sri Lankan military.

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About the Author

Claire Mallinson is the National Director of Amnesty International Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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