Using this Glossary 

Facing History and Ourselves believes that definitions are “works-in-progress.” Our understanding of ideas is continually refined as we learn new information, often in collaboration with others. As we study the past and reflect on experiences in the present, we encourage students to construct their own meaning of important concepts. The “working definitions” provided in this glossary reflect how students might begin to define key terms they will encounter as they study international justice.



Accountability: To accept responsibility for one’s actions. 

Acholi: An ethnic group that mostly resides in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. Due to the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, large numbers of Acholi reside in camps as internally displaced people. 

Amnesty: To overlook a past offense is to grant amnesty. Governments can grant amnesty to individuals or groups for crimes or wrongdoing, which typically means the perpetrators can return to the community without punishment. 

Arraignment: The formal reading of criminal charges against a person, often in front of the accused.  

Arrest warrant: An authorization to arrest a person accused of a crime and bring an individual to court. 

Child soldier: A child who has been forced to commit acts of violence for a particular military group. The children are generally recruited or kidnapped by armed force and threatened with violence if they do not comply. 

Civil society: A segment of a society, community, or nation that is made up of organizations that are independent of the government and business interests, including religious organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). 

Complementarity: “The principle articulated in Article 17 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court that investigations and prosecutions should occur at a national level, rather than before the ICC, unless national authorities are genuinely unwilling or unable to do so.” (BBC World Service glossary) 

Crimes against humanity: According to the Rome Statute, the term “crimes against humanity” refers to any acts committed as part of a widespread or systemic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack. 

Criminal liability: A legal term that refers to one’s responsibility for wrongdoing, usually meaning that someone will be or could be prosecuted in court for committing a crime. 

Deterrent: As a legal term, a “deterrent” refers to something that discourages a person, group, or nation from committing a crime. Supporters of the ICC claim that having an international criminal court acts as a deterrent because potential perpetrators know that they can be caught and punished for their offenses. 

Diplomacy: The practice of handling affairs between nations, including conducting negotiations or mediating disputes. 

Due process: Respect for the rights of a person under the law, due process is a practice that ensures that people get treated fairly by the judicial system. Such rights vary depending on the government but often include the right to a lawyer, the right to an impartial judge, and the right to appeal. 

Exceptionalism: The theory or belief that something, especially a nation, does not conform to a pattern or norm and therefore has the right to behave in unilateral ways. 

Extradite: Term used when a government surrenders one of its citizens to the legal authority of another government. 

Genocide: According to the Rome Statute, genocide means any acts committed with the intent to destroy an ethnic, racial, national, or religious group. 

The Hague: A city in the Netherlands that is the location of the International Criminal Court. Other international justice agencies, such as the International Court of Justice, are also located in The Hague. 

Human rights commission: A body created with the purpose of examining and protecting the basic rights and freedoms to which all individuals are entitled. Human rights commissions are often established after a period of human rights violations to both document the abuses and to alleviate suffering for the victims. 

Humanitarian: A person or organization that works to promote human welfare, including the provision of basic needs such as access to clean water, food, shelter, and basic medical care. 

Immunity: Safety from being put on trial or being penalized for one’s actions. 

Impunity: When someone is not punished for a crime committed. 

Indictment: A formal legal document charging a person with a criminal offense. Someone who is indicted has been charged with a crime. 

Internally displaced persons camp (IDP camp): Camps which house people who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence or natural disaster. Similar to refugee camps, except that internally displaced people remain in their country of residency, while refugees seek safe haven in a different country. 

International Criminal Court: The International Criminal Court is a permanent, independent judicial body established in 2002. The court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. It is headquartered in The Hague, The Netherlands. 

Junta: A junta is a group, often military in nature, that seizes power after a revolution. In Argentina, a junta controlled the government from 1976 to 1983 and was responsible for state-sponsored violence against its own citizens. 

Jurisdiction: The area or categories over which a state or an organization can govern or apply the law. As of 2009, the jurisdiction of the ICC is limited to crimes that have taken place since July 1, 2002. The only crimes that can be prosecuted by the ICC are crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. The ICC can only investigate crimes committed by citizens of member states, crimes referred to it by a member state, or crimes referred to by the United Nations Security Council. 

Killing field: An area where many people have died, usually by massacre or genocide during war or violent civil disturbance. 

Mato oput: Meaning “to drink the bitter root,” mato oput is a traditional Acholi justice practice used to restore peace to the community after an accidental or intentional murder. After the perpetrator accepts responsibility for the crime and the victim’s family has granted forgiveness, a special ceremony is performed. The perpetrator and the victim’s family drink mato oput—a bitter drink—out of a shared bowl. This act symbolizes the reconciliation of the families as they bury the bitterness of the past. 

NGO (Non-Governmental Organization): Any nonprofit group that functions independently of government is referred to as an NGO. 

Nuremberg Trials/Nuremberg Tribunal: An international court set up after World War II to try Nazi war criminals, named for the city in Germany where the  trials took place. The proceedings were divided into two stages: The International Military Tribunal (IMT) prosecuted 24 high-ranking Nazi leaders. Following the IMT, the United States, with the approval of other nations, prosecuted other Nazi criminals at trials also held in Nuremberg. 

Paramilitary: Civilians organized into a military force. In the case of Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is a paramilitary group that has been fighting the government’s army for several decades, resulting in a drawn-out civil war that has cost Colombian lives and resources. 

Penal: Pertaining to the punishment of crimes, often by a legal action. 

Perpetrator: Someone who commits crimes and other acts of wrongdoing. 

Prosecute/Prosecutor/The Office of the Prosecutor: To prosecute is to bring legal charges against a person. The Office of the Prosecutor includes investigators, who determine if there is sufficient evidence to change someone with a crime, and lawyers, who bring the case to trial. At the International Criminal Court, the prosecutor is the person who decides if the ICC can take a case. If so, the prosecutor leads the legal investigation of this case. If sufficient evidence is found, the prosecutor asks the judges to issue a formal indictment.. 

Ratify: To formally approve a treaty or statute, usually by a government.  In the United States, the Senate has the authority to ratify an international treaty by a majority vote. As of October 2009, 110 nations had ratified the Rome Statute, making them members of the International Criminal Court. 

Reconciliation: The act of resolving conflict to restore peace and harmony to a relationship, community, or nation. 

Reparations: Compensation (given or received) for harm, loss, or suffering. 

Restorative justice: A theory of justice focused on repairing damage and restoring relationships. Those who practice restorative justice believe that perpetrators should work to repair the harm they have caused, often by paying reparations (e.g., giving money to the victims) or providing a service (e.g., rebuilding homes). Truth-telling and reconciliation are typically part of the restorative justice process. 

Retributive justice: A theory of justice focused on punishment. Those who practice retributive justice believe that perpetrators should suffer to make up for the crimes they have committed. 

Rome Conference: The 1998 conference at which representatives from 140 nations drafted the Rome Statute, the founding document of the International Criminal Court. 

Sovereignty: Freedom from external control, usually referring to a nation or state being able to control its own affairs. National governments claim to have sovereignty—the authority to create and enforce laws—within their own borders without foreign interference. 

Statute: In terms of international law, a written document that establishes a new agency, such as the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court.  A statue defines the purpose and limitations of this new agency. (Statute can also refer to a law passed by the legislative branch of a government.) 

Summary executions: Term used when a person is killed for a crime without first receiving a trial to prove guilt. 

Transitional justice: Transitional justice refers to a process that helps communities (neighborhoods, regions, nations, etc.) move out of a period of conflict marked by human rights abuses and/or civil war. This process might include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, and reparations. 

Tribunal: In international law, a temporary court, established to inquire into a specific matter. International criminal war crimes tribunals that have been established include the Nuremberg Trials (the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg), the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. 

Truth commission: A temporary body established to investigate and reveal a past history of human rights abuses. 

United Nations (UN): An international organization established in 1945 that aims to maintain peace throughout the world. 

United Nations Security Council: One of the main branches of the United Nations, the United Nations Security Council is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. There are 15 members of the Security Council, five permanent and ten rotating. The permanent members are the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China. The United Nations Security Council can refer cases to the ICC for investigation. 

War crimes: Violations of the rules of war as defined by the Geneva Convention. These could include torture, taking of hostages, committing any form of sexual violence, and excessive brutality. 

Continue to Key Groups and People or the Timeline.

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