Legal Glossary


Accomplice liability See Aiding and abetting liability

Aiding and abetting liability – A well-established concept in both international and domestic law, which holds that an individual or corporation may be held liable for giving substantial assistance or encouragement to the person who actually commits the violation, provided that the person giving aid knew that the assistance would help the person commit the violation.

Alien Tort Statute (ATS) – The Alien Tort Statute is a U.S. federal law dating to 1789 which allows foreign victims of international human rights abuses to sue the perpetrators in U.S. courts, no matter where the abuses were committed, so long as the perpetrator is found within the United States.  Since 1980, the ATS has been used successfully in cases involving torture, rape, extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and arbitrary detention. » Read more…

Amicus curiae brief – Latin for "friend of the court."  A written legal argument filed with a court by someone who is not a party to the case that addresses a related legal issue.  CJA files amicus briefs in human rights cases brought by other individuals or organizations, in which the issues raised are of vital concern to our work.

Amnesty law – From the Greek, amnestia “forgetting”. An amnesty law is any law that retroactively exempts a group of people—usually military and government leaders—from criminal or civil liability for crimes committed in the past. » Read more…

Appellant – Any party making an appeal to a higher court.

Appellee – The respondent in an appeal.

Arbitrary detention – When an individual is arrested and detained by a government without due process and without the legal protections of a fair trial, or when an individual is detained without any legal basis for the deprivation of liberty.

The right to be free from arbitrary detention can be traced to one of the founding documents on personal liberty and civil governance—the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was drafted in 1215 to check the abuse of power by the English monarchy. In particular, Chapter 39 proclaimed that “[n]o free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”

Freedom from arbitrary detention is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain that without aggravating circumstances, simple arbitrary detention was not sufficiently well-established as a violation of international law to be an actionable claim under the ATS. U.S. courts have subsequently recognized claims for prolonged arbitrary detention. Also called Unlawful detention. See also Forced disappearance, Habeas corpus

Asylum – The right of asylum is an ancient legal notion, under which a person persecuted in her own country, on the basis of her race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, may be protected by the sovereign government of a foreign state. Also called political asylum.  See also Refugee

ATCA – Alien Tort Claims Act. See Alien Tort Statute

ATSSee Alien Tort Statute

Audiencia NacionalSee Spanish National Court

Cert petition – A document which a losing party files with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Supreme Court to review the decision of a lower court.  It includes a list of the parties, a statement of the facts of the case, the legal questions presented for review, and arguments as to why the Court should grant the writ of certiorari.  Also called Petition for writ of certiorari, Petition for cert

Civil actionSee Lawsuit

Civil law (Branch of the common law system) – A body of law dealing with disputes between private individuals or organizations.  Civil law courts provide a forum for disputes involving torts or other private matters that involve individual parties or organizations, including government departments.  The civil law often attempts to right a wrong, honor an agreement, or settle a dispute.  Unlike criminal law, the civil law can be enforced by private parties, through lawsuits brought before a civil law court.

Civil law (Legal system) – A legal system in which a codified and published collection of statutes provide the source of law.  In contrast, the source of law in common law systems is found in precedents set by previous court decisions. The most prevalent legal system in the world, the civil law is practiced in most of continental Europe, most of Latin America, parts of the Middle East and significant parts of Africa and East Asia.

Civil warSee Internal Armed Conflict

Comity – A practice in international relations where political entities (e.g. courts, nation-states) agree mutually to recognize each other’s legislative, executive and judicial acts.

Command responsibility – A legal doctrine which holds that a superior in an organized armed force may be held liable for international law violations committed by subordinates, if the commander knew or should have known about the abuses, and failed to take reasonable measures to prevent them or to punish the offenders.

Common law – Common law refers to a legal system developed through decisions of courts and similar tribunals, rather than through legislative statutes.  A decision in a current case depends on decisions made in previous cases, called precedents.  This evolving body of precedent—also called "common law" or “case law”—is binding on future decisions. In contrast, civil law legal systems derive laws exclusively from legislative statutes and legal codes, rather than from previous court decisions.  Common law countries include, among others, the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and Pakistan.

Complaint – The presentation made by the plaintiff in a lawsuit, setting forth the claims for which relief or damages are sought.

Court of Appeals (U.S. Federal) – A higher court of law empowered to review the decisions made by a lower district court.  U.S. federal courts of appeals are limited to reviewing whether the lower court made a correct legal determination, and do not hear new evidence or determine the facts of a case.  There are 13 U.S. courts of appeals, 12 of which correspond to a geographic region or “circuit”.  Also called Appellate Court. 

Crimes against humanity – Crimes against humanity includes individual violations committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population. An attack is widespread if it occurs on a large scale, directed at many intended victims. An attack is systematic if it is sufficiently organized and not random, such as in a pattern of similar crimes. Courts generally agree that the attack can be directed against any civilian population.

Historically, individual violations have included: murder; extermination; deportation; unlawful imprisonment; torture; rape; or persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds. Recent definitions used in international law have expanded the list of violations to include: institutionalized racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination (apartheid); forcible population transfer; forced disappearance; or forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and other severe forms of sexual violence.

Criminal law – The body of law that involves a government or international body’s prosecution of individuals who have committed an act classified as a crime.  Within the U.S. legal system, federal, state, and local governments codify crimes and prosecute criminals.  In common law jurisdictions, only a prosecuting attorney acting on behalf of the government may bring a criminal case against an accused.  Despite variations in rules and procedures, the common characteristic of the criminal law, across jurisdictions, is the potential to impose sever penalties for failure to comply.  Punishments can include, fines, deprivation of liberty, and in certain nations, even death.

Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT)
– While prohibiting CIDT, Article 16 of the UN Convention on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment (CAT) does not provide an enumerated list of acts that qualify as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.  Court decisions on international law claims of CIDT have been mixed; several judges allowed  lawsuits and several others rejected them. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to define CIDT; in general, CIDT is of the same character as torture, but to a lesser degree of severity. U.S. courts have at times limited this violation to acts that would be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” under the U.S. Constitution.

Customary international law – One of the fundamental sources of international law, customary international law consists of certain rules of law derived from the consistent conduct of States acting in the belief that such conduct is required by law. The elements of customary international law include:
•    The widespread repetition by States of similar international acts over time 
•    The acts must occur out of sense of obligation
•    The acts must be taken by a significant number of States and not be rejected by a significant number of States
» Read more

Death squad – From the Spanish “escuadron de la muerte”. A clandestine military or paramilitary group who carries out extra-judicial killing and/or forced disappearance of  perceived political opponents, often on behalf of or with the tacit approval of a government. See also Paramilitary

Default judgment – A binding judgment in favor of the plaintiff when the defendant has not responded to a summons or has failed to appear before a court.  A default judgment may be vacated, or set aside, if a defendant later files a motion with the court providing a proper excuse for her absence.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – A U.S. federal agency responsible for preventing and responding to domestic emergencies, including terrorist attacks and natural disasters.  The DHS absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 2003, and divided its activities between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), responsible for border protection and  law enforcement, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), responsible for handling immigrant visa and naturalization petitions, and asylum and refugee applications. See also Asylum, Refugee

DisappearanceSee Forced disappearance

Discovery – A stage in a case in which both parties are able to compel the release of facts or documents relating to the case.

District Court (U.S. federal) The general trial courts of the U.S. federal court system, district courts have jurisdiction over cases which involve federal statutes or interpretations of federal law. There are 94 U.S. district courts. Decisions from these courts are subject to review by one of the 13 United States court of appeals, which are, in turn, subject to review by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Docket – A list of filings (e.g. pleadings, motions, responses, briefs) in a case.

Due process – In the U.S. legal system, due process of law is the principle that the government must respect all of the legal rights that are owed to a person according to the law of the land, as stated in the constitution and developed through case law. Due process is an ancient legal notion in the common law, dating back to the Magna Carta of 1215.

» Read more on due process rights under the U.S. constitution and international humanitarian law.

Equitable tolling – A principle of  law stating that plaintiffs may still sue even after a statute of limitations has expired, but only if they have been prevented from doing so by extraordinary circumstances.  In this sense, “tolling” means that the clock on the limitation time period will not start to tick until the circumstances which barred the suit from being filed have been lifted.

En banc – Law French, meaning “on the bench.”  U.S. Courts of Appeals divide into panels of judges to hear cases.  A case may be re-heard en banc, meaning before the entire "bench" of appellate judges.

Ethnic cleansing – The expulsion, imprisonment or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority in order to achieve ethnic homogeneity. Ethnic cleansing may constitute the international crimes of genocide or crimes against humanity.

Exhaustion of remedies – A legal doctrine which prevents a litigant from filing a lawsuit in a new court or jurisdiction until all claims or remedies have been exhausted (pursued as fully as possible) in the original one. In the U.S. courts, under the TVPA, survivors are generally required to try to bring a case in their home country before suing in the United States. This rule has not been applied in domestic law cases, and courts have generally rejected an exhaustion requirement for ATCA cases. Even if an exhaustion requirement exists, it can typically be met if the survivors show that it would have been futile or impossible to try to bring a case in their home country.

Extradition – Extradition is the official process whereby one nation or state requests and obtains from another nation or state the surrender of a suspected or convicted criminal. Between nation states, extradition is regulated by treaties.

Extrajudicial killing
– A deliberate killing not authorized by a court affording due process protections. Also called Summary execution, extrajudicial assassination.

Extraterritorial jurisdiction
– Customary international law recognizes five principles of jurisdiction under which every sovereign government has the power to hear criminal or civil cases. The territorial principle gives a sovereign jurisdiction within its national borders. Four non-territorial principles may allow sovereigns to exercise criminal or civil jurisdiction over conduct committed outside its national borders. These are the protective principle, the nationality principle, the passive personality principle and the principle of universal jurisdiction.

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Forced disappearance – An abduction by state officials or their agents, without due process of law, followed by an official refusal to acknowledge the abduction or to disclose the fate of the person abducted. Also called ‘enforced disappearance’, or simply ‘disappearance’.

Forced labor See Slavery

Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) – Passed by Congress in 1976, the FSIA establishes the limitations under which a foreign sovereign nation (or its political subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities) may be sued in U.S. courts. It also establishes specific procedures for service of process and attachment of property for proceedings against a foreign state. The FSIA provides the exclusive basis and means to bring a lawsuit against a foreign sovereign in the United States.

» Read the text of the FSIA

Forum non conveniens – Latin for “inconvenient forum”. A fairly complex legal doctrine that allows a court to dismiss a lawsuit that it determines would be more appropriately and conveniently filed somewhere else. Often, the choice is between a court in the U.S. and a court in a foreign country, such as the country where the violation occurred or the country where the defendant resides.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – A 1966 U.S. law requiring government agencies to release their records to the public upon request, unless the information sought needs to be kept secret to preserve national security, an individual’s right to privacy, or internal agency management. If the government agency does not comply, an individual or group can sue for the release of records.

Gender-based violence – Physical or mental harm perpetrated against a person based on power inequalities resulting from gender roles.  Gender-based violence may or may not contain elements of sexual violence, such as rape.  Although gender- (and trans-gender-) based violence can affect both men and women, the majority of cases involve women and girls.  

Geneva Conventions – A key source of international humanitarian law that governs the way wars may be fought and the protection of individuals in times of armed conflict.  The Four Conventions were adopted in 1949 and cover the treatment of sick and wounded armed forces, prisoners of war and civilians.  Among their many provisions, Article 3 Common to the Geneva Conventions (often called Common Article 3) sets out the minimum protections that must apply including the prohibition against torture and “humiliating and degrading treatment,” and the passing of sentences by irregularly constituted courts that do not apply the judicial guarantees “which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

» Read more about the Geneva Conventions

Genocide – Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as: “Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
•    killing members of the group
•    causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
•    deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring
     about its physical destruction in whole or in part
•    imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
•    forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

Habeas corpus – A Latin expression meaning “produce the body”.  A writ of habeas corpus is a judicial order to a prison official demanding that an inmate be brought to the court so that a judge can determine whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully.  If there is no factual or legal reason for the detention, release is ordered.  Petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus is a means of testing whether a prisoner has been given basic due process rights.

Human rights – The rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled in the society in which they live. Such rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work and the right to education.

Human trafficking – The transport of persons, by means of coercion, deception or consent, for the purpose of exploitation, such as forced or consensual labor or prostitution. See also Slavery

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
– A federal law enforcement agency under the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for the nation’s border, economic, transportation, and infrastructure security. ICE includes an Office of Investigations tasked with investigating transnational crimes such as human rights violations, human smuggling, human trafficking, narcotics, arms trafficking, smuggling, terrorism, financial crimes and computer crimes.  ICE is also responsible for the detention and removal (deportation) of unlawful immigrants.

To date, ICE has initiated nationwide over 1000 human rights related investigations or removal cases that are in various stages of investigation from over 89 countries. See also Department of Homeland Security

Immunity – The status of a person or body that places them beyond the law and makes them free from legal obligations, such as liability for torts under civil law or prosecution under criminal law.  Foreign governments and many of the officials who work for them often claim they are immune from human rights lawsuits in U.S. courts.  See also Qualified immunity, Sovereign immunity, FSIA

Impunity – The impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice.  Impunity arises when states fail to meet their obligations to investigate abuses, to take appropriate measures to prosecute the perpetrators or to duly punish those convicted.

» Read the Updated 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.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – Established in 1959, the IACHR is a permanent autonomous organ of the Organization of American States which meets in Washington D.C. to examine allegations of human rights violations in the hemisphere. The main functions of the IACHR are to investigate individual petitions, publish country specific human rights reports, request that states adopt precautionary measures to prevent human rights violations and refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for trial.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) – Established in 1979, with the purpose of enforcing and interpreting the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights, the IACHR hears and rules on the specific cases of human rights violations referred to it, and issues opinions on matters of legal interpretation brought to its attention by other OAS bodies or member states.
Internal armed conflict – A contemporary term for a civil war that marks a contrast with international armed conflicts—which are subject to specific provisions of international humanitarian law—and also allows for differences in the nature and scale of internal conflicts. Although an exact threshold has not been codified, the international community generally accepts that at a certain point violent confrontation within a State goes beyond the realms of domestic criminal law and becomes an armed conflict to which international law applies. » Read more

International Criminal Court – The International Criminal Court (ICC), governed by the Rome Statute, is the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community. The ICC is an independent international organization, and is not part of the United Nations system. Its seat is at The Hague in the Netherlands. See also International criminal law
»Read more

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is a United Nations court of law dealing with war crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s.  Since its establishment in 1993, it has irreversibly changed the landscape of international humanitarian law and provided victims an opportunity to voice the horrors they witnessed and experienced.
» Read more

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) – The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established by the United Nations Security Council in November 1994, for the prosecution of persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994. It may also deal with the prosecution of Rwandan citizens responsible for genocide and other such violations of international law committed in the territory of neighboring States during the same period.
» Read more

Internally Displaced Person (IDP) – Individuals or groups who have been forced or obliged to flee their homes or places of habitual residence—as a result of armed conflict, persecution, human rights violations, or natural or human-made disasters—but who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border. In contrast, a refugee is one who has, for similar reasons, fled their habitual residence and crossed an international border.
» Read more

International criminal law – A branch of international law which deals with crimes of an international character
and the courts and tribunals set up to adjudicate such cases. Unlike other branches of international law which concern the rights and obligations of states and institutions, international criminal law addresses the criminal responsibility of individuals for violations of international law. See also International humanitarian law, International public law, International human rights law

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) – A body of law that defines the conduct and responsibilities of belligerent nations, neutral nations and individuals engaged in warfare, in relation to each other and to protected persons, including civilian non-combatants and prisoners of war. IHL is comprised of the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions, as well as subsequent treaties, case law and customary international law.  Also called the ‘laws of war’ or the ‘law of armed conflict’.

International human rights law – A system of laws, both domestic, regional and international, designed to promote human rights. Human rights law is made up of various international human rights instruments which are binding to the nation-states that sign them, although certain universal minimum standards, called jus cogens norms, are considered binding on all nations, even those that have not ratified the relevant treaty.

In principle, human rights law is enforced on a domestic level, through national courts, since states that ratify human rights treaties commit themselves to enact domestic national human rights legislation.  Enforcement can also occur on a regional level, through a body such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, or at the international level, through a body such as the International Criminal Court. See also International Humanitarian Law, Customary International Law, International public law, International criminal law

International law – A system of laws concerning the rights and obligations of  sovereign
nations, international governance institutions (such as the United Nations), and in
some cases, movements of national liberation or armed insurrection as well as individuals. Norms of international law have their source in:

1) treaties;
2) customary international law (consistent state practice accompanied by a sense of legal obligation (opinio juris)); or
3) general principles of law common to domestic legal systems (e.g., principles of fraud or fairness).

See also International humanitarian law, International criminal law, International human rights law

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Joint criminal enterprise – A concept in domestic and international law that assigns individual criminal or civil responsibility to all individuals who are part of a common plan or purpose which amounts to or involves the commission of a crime.

Jurisdiction – In a broader political sense, jurisdiction is the power of the State to enforce its laws. In a narrower legal sense, jurisdiction is the authority of a court or judge to render a decision and enforce the law in a particular case.
 See also Universal jurisdiction, Extraterritorial jurisdiction

Jus cogens – Latin for “compelling law.” Jus Cogens is a principle of international law which holds that certain globally accepted standards of behavior or “norms” are binding on all states, regardless of whether a state has signed a related treaty.  In other words, a jus cogens norm is one which all states are obligated to respect and are bound to enforce.

It is generally accepted that jus cogens norms include the prohibition of genocide, maritime piracy, slavery and slave trading, torture, and wars of aggression and territorial aggrandizement. Also called peremptory norm. See also International law

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Law of nationsSee International law

Lawsuit – A civil legal action brought before a court in which a party, called a plaintiff, claims to have received damages from a defendant’s actions or negligent inactions. If the plaintiff is successful, judgment will be given in the plaintiff’s favor, and a range of court orders may be issued to award monetary damages, or impose an injunction to prevent or compel an act.

Letters Rogatory – In its broader sense in international practice, the term letters rogatory denotes a formal request from a court in which an action is
pending, to a foreign court to perform some judicial act. Examples are
requests for the taking of evidence, the serving of a summons, subpoena,
or other legal notice, or the execution of a civil judgment. In United
States usage, letters rogatory have been commonly utilized only for the
purpose of obtaining evidence. Requests rest entirely upon the comity of
courts toward each other, and customarily embody a promise of reciprocity.

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Magna Carta – One of the founding documents on personal liberty and civil governance, the Magna Carta was drafted in 1215 to check the abuse of power by the English monarchy. Chapter 39 proclaimed that “[n]o free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” See also Habeas corpus, Arbitrary detention, Due process
» Read a modern English translation of the Magna Carta

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Nationality principle (jurisdiction) – A principle of international law that gives a sovereign state jurisdiction over crimes committed by its nationals while they are abroad. 

Nuremberg principles
– A set of guidelines created for the purposes of the Nuremberg Trials, to define War crimes, Crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace. The Nuremberg Principles were formulated under the direction of the U.N., and have become a key part of international law in prosecuting cases such as genocide, slavery, torture, deportation, or destruction of property.

Nuremberg trials – A series of trials or tribunals most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany after its defeat in World War I. The first and best known of these trials was the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which tried 22 of the most important captured leaders of Nazi Germany. It was held from 21 November 1945, to 1 October 1946. The second set of trials of war criminals including doctors, lawyers and government ministers was conducted under Control Council Law No. 10 at the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT). See also Nuremberg Principles

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Organization of American States (OAS) –  The Organization of American States (OAS) brings together 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere to strengthen cooperation on democratic values, defend common interests and debate the major issues facing the region and the world. The OAS is the region’s principal multilateral forum for strengthening democracy, promoting human rights, and confronting shared problems such as poverty, terrorism, illegal drugs and corruption.

Paramilitary – A group of civilians unofficially organized into a military unit especially to operate in place of or assist regular army forces.  In internal armed conflicts and under repressive regimes, paramilitaries are routinely deployed by governments to preserve plausible deniability and to obscure the chain of command. See also Death squad

Passive personality jurisdiction
– A principle of international law which permits a sovereign State to exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed against its nationals while they are abroad.  For example, a state may have criminal jurisdiction over the torture of its own citizens by a foreign national, no matter where the torture occurred. See also Extraterritorial jurisdiction

Peremptory normSee Jus cogens

Plaintiff – An individual who has been wronged and brings a lawsuit to court

Pleading – A pleading is a formal written statement filed with a court by parties in a civil action.

Political question doctrine – A legal doctrine which holds that U.S. federal courts may refuse to decide a case if the matters involved properly belong to the decision-making authority of elected officials. Although it is generally true that the Courts may not supervise or control the decisions of the executive branch of government, in certain instances the demands of due process and criminal justice may outweigh claims of executive privilege.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – An anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults such as sexual violence or torture, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents or military combat.  People with PTSD often experience persistent frightening thoughts and memories or flashbacks of their ordeal and may experience sleep problems, feel detached or numb, or be easily startled.
» Read more

Protective principle (jurisdiction) – A principle of international law that gives a State jurisdiction over extraterritorial conduct that threatens its national security, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator or the location of the conduct. Such conduct could include espionage or counterfeiting of currency. See also Extraterritorial jurisdiction

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Qualified immunity – A legal doctrine which grants immunity from civil liability to a public official, as long as the conduct in question does not violate clearly established constitutional or statutory norms.  Under this doctrine, a government official may still be held liable for certain types of egregious conduct.

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Rape – A form of sexual violence. Under repressive governments and in situations of armed conflict, rape is often used by combatants or by government or paramilitary agents as a tactic to terrorize and humiliate individual women and men as well as their communities, and to disrupt social continuity. The systematic use of rape as a weapon of war has been a feature of ethnic cleansing and genocide. See also Gender-based violence, Sexual violence, Violence against women

Refugee – A person who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence and has crossed an international border to Seek asylum in another State.  A refugee is unable or unwilling to return home due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. See also Asylum, Internally displaced person


Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity (SOGI) – The United Nations’ Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights
Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
(2007) clarify that international human rights protections extend to sexual orientation and gender identity.  Sexual orientation refers to "each person’s capacity for profound emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to, and intimate and sexual relations with, individuals of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender."  Gender identity refers to "each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms."  In many societies, when an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity does not conform to majority expectations, s/he may become the target for discrimination or even violence. See also Violence Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.

Sexual violence –  Sexual contact or activity of an abusive and coercive nature.  Sexual violence can include physical abuse, such as rape, as well as psychological abuse, such as harassment and threats. Although individuals of any gender can be subjected to sexual violence, the majority of victims are women. In armed conflicts, the breakdown of social infrastructures can leave women and girls particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.  However, sexual violence is not simply a by-product of war.  It can also be a deliberate and systematic strategy of warfare or of government repression, designed to terrorize and humiliate. See also Violence Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity, Violence against Women
» Read more

Slavery (and slave trading) – Slavery is one of the oldest recognized violations of international law, even when committed by non-state actors, and can form the basis of a lawsuit under international law.  Slavery and slave trading may include several different kinds of conduct – obviously, slavery that involves actual ownership of individuals and control of their actions, or the buying or selling of individuals, is a violation of international law. Other slave-like conditions also violate international law; in one case, a court correctly found that paying someone to conscript forced labor would constitute participation in slave trading. If individuals (other than prison inmates) are forced to provide labor, and the defendant participates in or benefits from this practice, a claim of slavery or slave trading may be recognized. See also Human trafficking.

Spanish National Court (SNC) – Located in Madrid, Spain’s Audiencia Nacional has jurisdiction over:
(1) cases relating to more than one of the provinces throughout the country;
(2) serious monetary and drug trafficking cases;
(3) serious crimes committed outside the country when, according to Spanish law and international treaties, Spanish courts can exercise universal jurisdiction to prosecute them.

CJA currently has two criminal human rights cases in the SNC: the Guatemala Genocide Case, arising from the systematic violence against the Maya in the 1980s, and the Jesuits Massacre Case, arising from a 1989 massacre in El Salvador. See also Universal jurisdiction

State action
– Because many international law rules only apply to governments, not to private individuals, many acts (such as torture) are only violations of international law when committed by a state actor: a government official or someone acting in partnership with a government official.

State secrets privilege – An evidentiary rule in U.S. case law that allows a court to exclude evidence from a case, following the federal government’s request, on the grounds that the proceedings might disclose sensitive information that may threaten national security.

Statute of limitations – A law establishing a time limit for bringing a legal action.  In a civil case, the statute of limitations may begin when the tort occurred or when it was first discovered.

Stress position – A euphemism for any number of torture techniques where a detainee is forced by an interrogator or jailer to maintain painful positions in order to coerce a confession, obtain information, or obtain compliance.  Examples include binding by ropes, chains, or handcuffs into unnatural positions or forcing a detainee to stand or perform an exercise for prolonged periods of time, often under threat of further injury. Also called Stress and duress, “torture lite”. See also Torture, Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

Subject matter jurisdiction – A determination of whether a court has jurisdiction, or the power to render decisions, over claims or disputes.

Summary judgment – A determination made by a court, applying law to facts, without going to full trial

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Tort – A wrongful act that results in injury to another’s person, property, reputation, or the like, and for which the injured party is entitled to compensation.

Torture – The UN Convention on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment (CAT) defines torture as: “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) – A federal statute, passed in 1991,  that allows for the filing of lawsuits in U.S. federal courts against individuals who, acting under the actual or apparent authority of a foreign nation, committed torture or extrajudicial killing. Under the TVPA, both U.S. citizens and non-citizens may file suit. The perpetrator must be served with the lawsuit while they are present in the U.S. in order for a court to have jurisdiction. See also Alien Tort Statute

Transitional justice – A range of judicial and non-judicial strategies that are used to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses and armed conflict in a given country.  These strategies have a variety of goals: to hold those who had command responsibility for systematic abuses legally accountable; to help repair social divisions caused by conflict; to provide survivors with a full accounting and acknowledgement of the abuses that occurred; to offer material and moral reparations to survivors; and to reform key state institutions including the military, police and judiciary in order to ensure that the pattern of human rights violations is not repeated.
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Truth commission – One of the most prominent mechanisms for transitional justice, a truth commission is a temporary official body, often formed by a national government in a post-conflict situation, that is tasked with investigating and documenting the historic pattern of human rights abuses within a certain country, over a specific period of time.  Also called  Truth and reconciliation commission.

Universal jurisdiction (UJ) – The doctrine of international law which holds that certain crimes are so egregious that the perpetrators may be held accountable wherever they are found.  These crimes include genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture.  The doctrine provided the legal foundation for the Nuremberg trials against Nazi war criminals.  More recent events – including the arrest of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet in London, the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR), the prosecution of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone and the establishment of the International Criminal Court, all reflect the growing determination of the international community to carry forward the Nuremberg legacy of bringing individuals to justice for violations of international law that “shock the conscience of humanity.”

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Violence against women – Under repressive governments and in situations of armed conflict, women and girls are frequently targets of gender-based violence. Such violence can take the form of direct physical assaults and sexual violence or of psychological abuse. In addition to rape, women and girls are often abducted into sexual slavery, forced into marriage and pregnancy, trafficked and/or forced to exchange sex for survival. See also Gender-based violence, Sexual violence

Violence Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity (SOGI) – The persecution of individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity constitutes a pervasive human rights problem around the world.  SOGI-based violence can take the form of discrimination and denial of basic rights and liberties as well as imprisonment, torture and even execution.  See also Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity (SOGI), Gender-based violence.

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War crime – War crimes are those violations of international humanitarian law —the laws of war—that incur individual criminal responsibility. These violations are enumerated in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and in Additional Protocol I of 1977. See also International criminal law, International humanitarian law

Waterboarding – One of several techniques of interrogational torture that involve suffocation by water.  In this technique, the perpetrator restrains the victim, places a cloth over the victim’s face and then pours a stream of water over the victim’s nostrils and mouth.  The water triggers an involuntary layrngospasm in the victim’s throat, creating the sensation of imminent drowning.  Although waterboarding has been called “simulated drowning” in the U.S. media, a more accurate description might be “controlled drowning”, since an uninterrupted application of the method could be lethal. Waterboarding could also be considered a form of staged execution–a severe form of psychological torture. Also called water torture, the “water cure”, the “Dutch method”

Writ of certiorari – A decision by the Supreme Court to hear an appeal from a lower court.  Also called Cert.  See also Cert Petition

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Please Note – This glossary is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.  The materials contained in this glossary serve as general information which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments. Links to other websites are provided for informational purposes alone and are not an endorsement of the views or opinions published therein.

Selected Sources

Black’s Law Dictionary, Standard Ninth Edition, Ed. Brian A. Garner, West, 2009.

Crimes of War Project:

EarthRights: International Litigation Manual (2nd Edition) [PDF]

International Committee of the Red Cross:

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights:

World Health Organization:

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