Impunity – definition and examples

Impunity means free from punishment or the negative consequences of an action. If somebody commits an illegal act with impunity, it means that he or she got away with it. We use the word ‘impunity’ when we disapprove that the person got away with it. In other words, we believe that they should have been punished or faced their comeuppance.

The term emerged in the English language in Britain in the 1530s. It came from the Middle French word impunité. The Middle French word came from Latin impunitatem, which meant ‘freedom from punishment, omission of punishment.’ Impunitatem also meant ‘rashness, inconsideration.’

Collins Dictionary says the following regarding the term:

“If you say that someone does something with impunity, you disapprove of the fact that they are not punished for doing something bad.”

In the international law of human rights, impunity refers to the failure to bring the guilty parties of human rights violations to justice. It, therefore, constitutes a denial of the victims’ right to justice and redress.

Perhaps the only thing worse than impunity is being blamed and punished for something you did not do.

Corporate impunity – global financial crisis

In 2007/8, there was a global financial crisis and then the Great Recession. Sub-prime mortgages in the United States going belly up were one of the main causes of the crisis.

Sub-prime mortgages are loans to people with bad credit ratings or histories. People who should not have received loans to buy a house did get loans.

Eventually, millions of borrowers with bad credit histories started defaulting on their loans.

Rather than let the bankers and lenders face the consequences, governments in Europe and America bailed them out. In other words, they used taxpayers’ money to save them.

In the opinion of many taxpayers, the bailouts were shocking examples of corporate impunity.

Today, banks that taxpayers bailed out continue paying their top executives giant bonuses. Even financial institutions that are losing money pay out giant bonuses.

Corporate impunity

Corporate impunity refers to business people getting away with bad or illegal deeds.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre published an interesting article on its website. The article – ‘Corporate impunity is common and remedy for victims is rare’ – looks at corporate human rights abuses.

The article shows countless cases of sustained impunity. It also looks at ways to bring corporate leaders to justice.

According to the authors, many human rights defenders have suffered beatings, threats, and even killings for demanding justice.

Even though the number of attacks has been increasing, victims and their defenders rarely obtain justice.

For example, nobody ever solves 90% of killings and abuses in Honduras.

The authors wrote:

“The impunity of companies for involvement in human rights abuses is increasing, and in the context of increasing economic nationalism, it is likely to get worse – particularly where business interests are able to ride populist nationalist politics to acquire deep influence and insulate themselves from accountability.