The development of crimes against humanity and the law of human rights was partially inspired by a wish to ensure that the atrocities that characterized Nazi Germany were not repeated. Thus the modern law of human rights and a considerable part of international criminal law have a common base.
More recent developments in the enforcement of international criminal law, in particular the creation of the two ad hoc Tribunals, were introduced in response to mass abuses of human rights by States against their own citizens or others within their territory. Hence, parts of international criminal law have developed in this context to respond to egregious violations of human rights in the absence of effective alternative mechanisms for enforcing the most basic of humanitarian standards.
Human rights obligations are imposed primarily on States, and it is frequently State agents who are the transgressors; where States are not implementing their human rights obligations, the principles of international criminal law are a useful and necessary alternative to State responsibility. The similarities in the objectives of both bodies of law are clear; both seek to provide a minimum standard of humane treatment. Both, unlike most other branches of international law, have a direct impact on individuals, albeit in somewhat different ways.
The international instruments on human rights played an obvious part in the drafting of the Statutes of the two ad hoc Tribunals and in the Statute of the ICC. And the ad hoc Tribunals have used human rights law, and decisions of international bodies applying that law, to assist them in their interpretation of substantive international criminal law and in establishing new procedural concepts of law.
Nonetheless, although there are overlaps between human rights law and international criminal law, they are not synonymous, and there are dangers in treating them as being so. Almost every international crime would be a violation of human rights law, but the converse does not apply. The use of human rights standards by the Trial Chamber in the case of the Rwandan Radio Station RTLM with respect to direct and public incitement to genocide was upheld by the Appeals Chamber, but on the basis that the Trial Chamber was careful to distinguish hate speech, that may be a matter for human rights bodies, and that offense.
International criminal courts and tribunals do not exist to prosecute violations of the whole panoply of human rights. Further, human rights obligations are primarily imposed upon States, not individuals, and it is for States to decide how they will enforce them on their own agents; except in the case of the most serious abuses, this will not often be by criminalizing the activity concerned.
Finally, whereas human rights norms may be given a broad and liberal interpretation in order to achieve their objects and purposes, in international criminal law there are countervailing rights of suspects that are protected through principles requiring that the law be strictly construed and that ambiguity be resolved in favor of the accused.