Evolution of Retribution of Superior Criminal Responsibility in International Law

Document Type : Original Article


1 Ph.D. Student in International Law, Faculty of Law, Divinity and Political Science, Islamic Azad University, Science and Research Branch, Tehran, Iran /

2 Professor, Department of Public and International Law, Faculty of Law and Political Sciences, Allameh Tabataba'i University, Tehran, Iran.


The concept of Superior Responsibility is well rooted in the history of clashes and confrontations of states, nations and civilizations. Historically the norm of “might is right” had justified the acts of the superior state regardless of the probable criminal nature of the deeds. This could be well applied to the colonial history of the west since 17th century. The mere superiority in power, precisely the military capabilities, sufficed to provide carte blanche for intrusion without accountability. There have been regional and international efforts to improve the drastic lack of responsibility by powerful states; the principle of Westphalia Sovereignty was the first European attempt to improve the matter. Nonetheless outside Europe, the irresponsible modus operandi remained a reality for the colonized states. Furthermore, in 1800s the Act of State doctrine in the US came into existence. The two doctrines remain the sole sources of the discourse until the First World War it was between the two world wars that the challenges of the discourse of responsibility versus irresponsibility was once again brought into the attention. The Nuremberg Charter, for the first time, put an end to the rhetoric in favor of the irresponsibility theory by acknowledging that: “the official position of defendants, shall be considered as freeing them from responsibility.”
The aforesaid phrase became the cornerstone of the Attributing Responsibility. Also, inferiors and soldiers deemed as responsible due to the fact that, they were human before being soldiers. Under the Charter, the superiors were also taken responsible not only for their own direct orders and acts, but also vicariously liable for the acts of their inferiors. The superior has been defined as army commander or civil superior. Hence such responsibility should not be limited only to military personnel, as it should also be held applicable to the politicians.


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