Impunity means "exemption from punishment or loss or escape from fines". In the international law of human rights, it refers to the failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and, as such, itself constitutes a denial of the victims' right to justice and redress. Impunity is especially common in countries that lack a tradition of the rule of law, suffer from corruption or that have entrenched systems of patronage, or where the judiciary is weak or members of the security forces are protected by special jurisdictions or immunities. Impunity is sometimes considered a form of denialism of historical crimes.
The Armenian Genocide was fueled by impunity for the perpetrators of earlier massacres of Armenians, such as the 1890s Hamidian massacres. After the genocide, the Treaty of Sèvres required Turkey to allow the return of refugees and enable them to recover their properties. However, Turkey did not allow the return of refugees and nationalized all Armenian properties. A secret annex to the Treaty of Lausanne granted immunity to the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide and put an end to the effort to prosecute Ottoman war criminals. Hardly anyone was prosecuted for the systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. According to historian Stefan Ihrig, the failure to intervene and hold perpetrators accountable made the genocide the "double original sin" of the twentieth century.
The amended Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Through Action to Combat Impunity, submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on 8 February 2005, defines impunity as:
the impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account – whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings – since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims.
The First Principle of that same document states that:
Impunity arises from a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate violations; to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered; to ensure the inalienable right to know the truth about violations; and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations.
Truth commissions are frequently established by nations emerging from periods marked by human rights violations – coups d'état, military dictatorships, civil wars, etc. – in order to cast light on the events of the past. While such mechanisms can assist in the ultimate prosecution of crimes and punishment of the guilty, they have often been criticised for perpetuating impunity by enabling violators to seek protection of concurrently adopted amnesty laws.
The primary goal of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, adopted on 17 July 1998 and entered into force on 1 July 2002, is "to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators" [...] "of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole".
Initially, the Allied Powers sought the prosecution of those responsible for the massacres. The Treaty of Sevres, which was signed on August 10, 1920, would have required the Turkish Government to hand over those responsible to the Allied Powers for trial. Treaty of Peace between the Allied Powers and Turkey [Treaty of Sevres], art. 230, at 235, Aug. 10, 1920, reprinted in 15 AM. J. INT'L L. 179 (Supp 1921). "The Treaty of Sevres was, however, not ratified and did not come into force. It was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which not only did not contain provisions respecting the punishment of war crimes, but was accompanied by a 'Declaration of Amnesty' of all offenses committed between 1914 and 1922." Treaty of Peace between the Allied Powers and Turkey [Treaty of Lausanne], July 24, 1923, League of Nations Treaty Series 11, reprinted in 18 AM. J. INT'L L. 1 (Supp. 1924). 99.
During World War I (WWI) (1914-18), almost twenty million people were killed... During that conflict, one situation stood out: the estimated 200,000-800,000 civilian Armenians killed in 1915. (4) In 1919, the Inter-Allied Commission (save for the U.S. and Japan) called for the prosecution of Turkish officials responsible. (5) That call was advanced on the basis of the 1907 Hague Convention's preamble referring to "the laws of humanity." (6) However, no prosecutions ensued. Instead, Turkey received immunity in a secret annex of the Treaty of Lausanne. (7)
The delayed peace settlement is, of course, the Lausanne Treaty. Yielding to the pressures of the implacable Kemalists, the victorious Allies abjectly discarded the two-year-old S~vres Treaty,26 through which they had attempted to prosecute and punish the authors of the Armenian genocide and, at the same time, redeem their promises for a future Armenia. After expunging all references to Armenian massacres (and, indeed, to Armenia itself) from the draft version,27 they signed the Lausanne Peace Treaty, thus helping to codify impunity by ignoring the Armenian genocide. The international law flowing from this treaty, while a sham in reality, lent an aura of respectability to impunity because the imprimatur of a peace conference was attached to it. A French jurist observed that the treaty was an "assurance" for impunity for the crime of massacre; indeed, it was a "glorification" of the crime in which an entire race, the Armenians, was "systematically exterminated." 2 " For his part, David Lloyd George, wartime Prime Minister of Great Britain, found it appropriate to vent his ire when he was out of power: He declared the Western Allies' conduct at the Lausanne Conference to be "abject, cowardly and infamous." 29 A creature of political deal-making, the Lausanne Treaty was a triumph of the principle of impunity over the principle of retributive justice.
Beginning with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the award of amnesty to defeated forces has often been the political price paid for achieving a cessation of hostilities.