Life, Death and the Crime of Crimes: Supreme Penalties and the ICC Statute

By William A. Schabas / Punishment and Society, on 1 January 2000

The attitude of international law and practice to supreme penalties has evolved enormously over the past half-century. At Nuremberg, in 1946, capital punishment was imposed upon Nazi war criminals. But at the Rome Conference in 1998, when the international community provided for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, not only was capital punishment excluded, the text also limited the scope of life imprisonment. These changes were driven principally by evolving norms of international human rights law. The first changes became apparent in the early work of the International Law Commission on the Code of Crimes against the Peace and Security of Mankind, during the 1950s. When criminal prosecution returned to the international agenda, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was widespread agreement to exclude capital punishment. But at the Rome Conference, a relatively small and geographically isolated group of States made an aggressive attempt to defend capital punishment. Ultimately unsuccessful, their efforts only drew attention to a growing rejection of both capital punishment and life imprisonment in international and national legal systems

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