Human rights cases may be resolved at the domestic level in a number of ways, including through direct application of international standards (because they have been ratified and codified domestically, or are jus cogens norms or other customary international law); through the direct application of analogous but independent provisions found in domestic law (such as national constitutions or U.S. civil rights statutes); through constitutional or statutory national human rights institutions; through alternative or transitional justice (such as truth and reconciliation commissions); through relatively unique statutes which allow civil suits for human rights violations committed in other States (such as the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act); or–in the case of international crimes–through the exercise of universal jurisdiction by another State’s courts.
Currently, a significant number of criminal prosecutions of widely-recognized human rights abuses are taking place in national courts, including in Guatemala and Argentina. Additionally, several significant civil suits are currently underway in U.S. courts under what, in some ways, can be considered the civil counterpart to universal jurisdiction (although personal jurisdiction must still be established). These include a suit under the Torture Victims Protection Act and Alien Tort Claims Act against former Somali officials for torture and other violations.
National Human Rights Institutions are independent bodies with a legal status between government and civil society. Although established through either constitutional or statutory provisions, they should enjoy – at least in theory – complete independence and autonomy from the government to enable a National Human Rights Institution’s ability to receive and act on complaints of human rights violations that may result from government actions or inaction.
Alternative means of justice—outside traditional criminal justice systems—can be particularly useful, and common, in post-conflict situations. Forms of transitional justice include government-established truth commissions designed to investigate and document large-scale human rights abuses (as in Chile), community-based dispute settlement (as in Rwanda), or reparations programs (as in Guatemala).
Universal jurisdiction is the term commonly used to describe the criminal prosecution, in national courts, of individuals suspected of committing international crimes, such as crimes against humanity and torture. Universal jurisdiction is based in the idea that the prosecution of such acts is owed erga omnes by all States to the international community of States, as part of the jus cogens nature of customary international law that prohibits such crimes. Spain has been the most notable example of the exercise of universal jurisdiction to try alleged crimes against humanity.