This chapter clarifies the relevance, potential and limitations of international criminal law in relation to preventing, mitigating and responding to disasters. Disasters are usually complex and rarely entirely ‘natural’ or entirely ‘man-made’. In order to gauge the relevance of international criminal law in relation to disasters, it is crucial to examine how adverse human agency can intervene at various moments in the course of the development, impact, exacerbation of and recovery from a disaster. Depending on the circumstances, adverse human agency can be such that it meets the elements of an international crime, including when a disaster is not a sudden crisis but a slow and gradual decline over time.
The destruction of the livelihoods of a population, forced displacement, pillage, deliberate starvation or other disrespectful policies are common in situations in which international crimes are committed, particularly in situations of armed conflict. The relationships between social rights and international criminal law are, however, not straightforward. Social rights abuses are sometimes described as causes or drivers of international crimes and vice versa, the commission of international crimes can severely affect the protection of social rights. Moreover, international criminal proceedings or other approaches based on international criminal law (for example, transitional justice mechanisms such as truth commissions or reparations programmes) can potentially have a positive or negative impact on social rights. The chapter also outlines the argument that there can be situations in which international crimes are committed by way of abusing social rights. This means that international and domestic criminal tribunals can be competent to engage with conduct harming social rights.