The term impunity refers to an exemption from punishment, or avoidance of penalties, in a situation which clearly calls for punishment. This might apply to someone who ultimately is not punished for wrongdoing, because the state failed in its duty to investigate and prosecute the crime. It might also apply to someone who sets himself above the law, acting with impunity. To explore this concept, consider the following impunity definition.

Definition of Impunity


  1. Exemption from punishment, or detrimental effects.


1525-1535       Latin impūnitās

What is Impunity

In the United States, the concept of impunity is often associated with such things as domestic violence, in which one spouse commits violence and abuse without fear of punishment. For example, Max is verbally abusive to his wife, Susan. He pushes, shoves, and violently shakes her, knowing she won’t complain to the authorities. In this example of impunity, Max acts, knowing he will escape punishment.

Another example of impunity is seen when people feel their elected representatives act in an illegal or immoral manner, and are not punished. For example, the mayor of XYZ City is known by many to use the services of paid escorts, and to hold lavish affairs using city funds. As no action has been taken, many of the city’s residents feel that he acts with impunity.

Impunity Example in International Conflict

On the international state, examples of impunity are seen in extreme human rights violations. In many nations, government bureaucracies take on threats to their political systems, engaging in a culture of impunity. When any government consistently fails to meet its obligation to investigate and prosecute violations of the law, and of human rights, by certain individuals, the culture of impunity is created.

Mexico – Dramatic Example of Impunity Culture

In recent years, Mexico has been waging a war against the cartels, and against drug violence in general. The escalating conflict between the government and organized crime has resulted in the loss of lives numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The stakes are high in this war, and the cartels do not own the market on violence.

Members of the Mexican security forces and law enforcement are accused of using extreme tactics in dealing with, not only dangerous criminals, but others they feel are causing conflict – such as union organizers demanding employee rights. Although false imprisonment, torture, and other methods of dealing with people are technically illegal, these authorities have developed a culture of impunity.

This culture of corruption, abuse of power, and violence is seen to be destabilizing the society in Mexico, as a new generation grows up where violence is the norm. The people learn that there is no enforcement agency they can trust – not the police, not the courts, and not even the army.

Corporations Acting with Impunity

In the U.S., many people believe that large corporations, able to influence lawmakers, and hide behind the almighty dollar, are able to act with impunity in many matters. For example, General Electric – better known as “GE” – with an annual revenue in the neighborhood of $150 billion, has been accused of creating environmental disasters on many fronts.

In 2011, the three nuclear reactors placed in Fukushima, Japan, melted down, creating the worst nuclear accident in the entire world. While radioactive contamination very quickly flooded 150 square miles, the downed reactors are still spilling contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. It has been reported that, when GE sold boiling water nuclear reactors to Japan, and sites around the United States, its engineers knew they were flawed.

It is estimated that 58 million people who live near the 35 still-active GE reactors in the U.S. Combined with the pollution of other communities with millions of pounds of cancer-causing substances over a period of decades, and other perceived corporate bad behavior, GE, like other large corporate entities, is seen to act with impunity – wreaking havoc with no fear of consequences.