n African Human Rights Law Journal - The penalty of life imprisonment under international criminal law

Volume 11, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 1609-073X
  • E-ISSN: 1996-2096



In light of the global trend towards the abolition of the death penalty and the stand of the United Nations on the matter, it is not surprising that the maximum penalty available under international criminal law is life imprisonment. However, during the negotiations for the penal aspects of the Rome Statute, some delegates contended that life imprisonment is a violation of human rights such as human dignity and the prohibition against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. On the other hand, some delegates felt that excluding life imprisonment from the International Criminal Court's competence where the death penalty was not available would handicap its mandate to punish gross human rights violators. Adopting a human rights perspective, the article revisits this debate by critically examining the penalty of life imprisonment under international criminal law. It argues that no clear justification has been given for the imposition of life imprisonment and that the release mechanism for lifers needs to be improved. Focusing on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court, the article analyses the relevant statutes and rules and the manner in which life imprisonment has been imposed by these tribunals. Further consideration is given to the enforcement of sentences with respect to the prospect of release for 'lifers'. The article concludes by stressing the need for a more focused and cautious approach to life imprisonment and the enforcement of sentences under international criminal law.

Loading full text...

Full text loading...


Article metrics loading...


This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was a Success
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error