Good day,

In the Philippines, there is an organization called the Commission on Human Rights. It came into being in response to many problems during the period when President Marcos declared Martial Law. That was when people would be detained without warrants, or worse.

In the present day, the CHR is tasked with investigating if police officers followed proper procedure. However, due to many violent crimes, the CHR is often criticized for not investigating crimes. In a sense, a crime is human right violation by the criminal against the victim.

Additionally, in the Philippine constitution, this is the function of the CHR.

SECTION 18. The Commission on Human Rights shall have the following powers and functions:

(1) Investigate, on its own or on complaint by any party, all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights;

My question is this...

In international law, what differentiates a crime, from a human rights violation? When does mass murder become a crime against humanity?

1 Answer 1


You are conflating a number of ideas that are not the same thing.

A crime is an "unlawful act punishable by a state". "The most popular view is that crime is a category created by law; in other words, something is a crime if declared as such by the relevant and applicable law." For the purposes of this answer, a crime encompasses felonies, misdemeanours and any other offence where a sovereign actor (state, nation etc.) can punish the perpetrator by due process of law.

A human right "are moral principles or norms, which describe certain standards of human behaviour, and are regularly protected as legal rights in municipal and international law." These are not legal rights unless there is a law in the relevant jurisdiction that makes them so.

"Crimes against humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population or an identifiable part of a population."

"Unlike genocide and war crimes, which have been widely recognized and prohibited in international criminal law since the establishment of the Nuremberg principles, there has never been a comprehensive convention on crimes against humanity, even though such crimes are continuously perpetrated worldwide in numerous conflicts and crises. There are eleven international texts defining crimes against humanity, but they all differ slightly as to their definition of that crime and its legal elements."

Therefore, human rights can be violated (when the UN Security Council says so) without that necessarily being a crime under domestic or international law. Similarly, there are many crimes (e.g. running a red light) which do not violate anyone's human rights. For something to be a crime against humanity it must be "a widespread or systematic attack" - a single nut with a gun or even a small group of nuts with explosives generally lack the capability to conduct such crimes.

  • Thank you. Is it safe to assume that a body designed to investigate human rights violations is not the correct agency to investigate crimes? Many people in the Philippines think the Commission on Human Rights is a useless agency, because of the rampant crime (which they consider a human right violation by the criminals that the CHR ignores)
    – Jpm Abaca
    Aug 31, 2016 at 8:36
  • Criminal investigation is what you're supposed to have police for. If the police aren't doing their job, why is blame being targeted to a group who has nothing to do with it? I make no argument as to why or why not police may or may not being doing a sufficient job.
    – user4657
    Aug 31, 2016 at 10:47

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