International criminal law (ICL) is a developing area of law. While its boundaries are loosely constructed and expanding, its modern history dates back to the post World War II period when two bodies of law converged: public international law, which historically sought to guide and constrain the behavior of states, and domestic criminal law, which focuses on individual criminal responsibility for breaches of domestic laws. Thus, while a broad definition of ICL may include transnational dimensions of domestic criminal law, ICL is often understood as a subset of public international law involving the use of criminal sanctions to enforce law that is primarily international. Specifically, ICL borrows from two key areas of public international law, namely international human rights and international humanitarian law. Thus, certain actions that violate human rights – such as slavery – also give rise to criminal responsibility at the international level. Similarly, certain actions that violate international humanitarian law – such as abuse of civilians or prisoners of war committed in the context of armed conflict – also give rise to criminal responsibility at the international level. While ICL is enforced in a number of international or internationally-supported tribunals, it is also increasingly enforced in domestic courts, usually through domestic penal statutes or codes incorporating international norms. In sum, the field is now characterized by a cross-fertilization of international and criminal law enforced at both the international and domestic levels.
Some lawyers in the field work for international criminal tribunals, many of which are located in The Hague, in The Netherlands. Others work for internationally-supported tribunals, most of which are located in the countries where serious international crimes have occurred, contain a mix of both international and domestic staff, and have jurisdiction over both international and domestic crimes. Another group of lawyers in this field work for domestic entities or agencies that deal with these crimes. In the United States, these include the Department of State’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, the Department of Justice’s Human and Special Prosecutions Section of the Criminal Division, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Human Rights Violators & War Crimes Unit. Still others work as legal or policy advisors for nongovernmental organizations – including organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation for Human Rights, or the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice – or intergovernmental groups, such as one of the United Nations entities dealing with serious international crimes, including the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute.
The core courses in this field are international criminal law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Because the field is so integrally linked with public international law, the basic course in international law is strongly recommended as a prerequisite. Tribunals that enforce international criminal law often use a mix of common law and civil law rules of criminal procedure and evidence. Thus, courses in criminal procedure, evidence and comparative law are also highly recommended. Finally, courses that help develop research, advocacy and litigation skills are also important, as these are key skills for practitioners in the field.