International Criminal Justice

This page lists a wide range of resources that explore how issues of language and culture play out in situations of conflict, and then impact the transitional justice mechanisms created in their aftermath. International criminal courts and tribunals are of particular interest in this regard.

Why a Theme on International Criminal Justice?

The late-20th and early-21st centuries saw the creation of a number of international judicial bodies with the mandate of investigating and bringing to justice persons accused of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and/or genocide — so-called "international crimes" whose perpetration is an affront to all. Some of these bodies, such as the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the International Criminal Court, were conceptualized outside of any national tradition, with judges and staff of diverse backgrounds applying international criminal law. Other institutions were designed as "hybrids," such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and the Extraordinary African Chambers (Senegal), and they employed both national and international law, judges and staff.

Whichever model it follows, international criminal justice remains a largely Western-based system, having been shaped by common law and civil law traditions. Despite their historic and geographic proximity, these two traditions have enough conceptual and procedural differences to cause occasional friction among international judges, prosecutors and other practitioners trained in one or the other.

It is the frequent appearance of non-Western traditions, however, with their respective languages and cultures, that presents real challenges for many international criminal proceedings. How do international courts and tribunals, for example, provide accurate translation and interpretation into languages without specialized legal terminology, with no previously trained professionals, and perhaps even lacking a written tradition? How do legal practitioners trained in the West understand and judge unfamiliar practices and conceptions of causality? What do victims from conflict and postconflict zones need and want in order to be made whole again, and how does that compare to what international criminal bodies can and do provide?

The linguistic and cultural practices that exist within international criminal courts and tribunals are also complex and may pose challenges. What does it mean for justice, for example, when institutions with several working languages largely default to English, thereby privileging those who speak it with native fluency? How does the often unseen institutional culture of international criminal bodies shape everyday understandings of justice and the means by which it is pursued?

Explore for yourself through the resources below the complex set of issues associated with linguistic and cultural diversity in processes of international criminal justice, as well as in the events from which these judicial processes emerge. Send suggestions for the inclusion of other relevant publications and materials to


Click on the type of resource below to explore an extensive thematic bibliography and more. Many of the items listed below without links may still be found gratis online through a simple Google search.