5 Steps Forward, 5 Steps Back: Catching and Convicting War Criminals

July 17, 2012

international justice fugatives
Click image to view full infographic and list of wanted fugatives

Today, supporters of human rights mark the Global Day for International Justice, an anniversary the need for which makes ‘celebration’ difficult, if not impossible.  A cursory look over last year of developments as it relates to securing justice for the most egregious of crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide—might yield cause for optimism, however.

Five Steps Forward for Justice

  1. Over the last year, following a UN Security Council referral of Libya, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found reasonable grounds for issuing arrest warrants for top Libyan officials, even as conflict was ongoing, demonstrating the ability and importance of the court in active crises.
  2. The ICC saw the first verdict and sentence handed down as Thomas Lubanga answered for conscription of children in devastating conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
  3. Also over the last year, Laurent Gbagbo, the former head of state of Cote d’Ivoire, became the first head of state to be surrendered to the ICC for alleged crimes, only one week after his indictment.
  4. At the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, Ratko Mladic finally faces prosecution for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for the largest mass murder in Europe since the end of World War II.
  5. The first conviction of a former head of state since the Nuremburg trials, as my colleague Angela Chang describes, was a historic step for international justice.

Finally, this year has seen a dramatic increase in interest by the public at-large in international justice issues. Likely a combination of the successes noted above, the dramatic interest in the #Kony2012 campaign, and awareness of the brutal and unconscionable crimes committed in Syria, the Sudan, Libya, and elsewhere, there has been a real and palpable public awareness of the essential need for a functioning system of international justice.

Justice cannot be an afterthought, decoupled from our efforts to protect the threatened and vulnerable.
Despite these positive developments, we still collectively sit at a fork in human history’s path toward the justice pondered by early Greek thinkers. Powerful relationships and political alliances threaten to shield perpetrators from the nascent mechanisms developed to secure justice, as we’ve also been reminded the past year.

Five Steps Back

  1. In Sudan, where Amnesty continues to document ongoing war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, the Sudan Defence Minister, the governor of Southern Kordofan, and the President of Sudan remain fugitives from the ICC for charges related to crimes in Darfur. The UN Security Council has yet to take any decisive action on the crisis, nor any meaningful condemnation of several countries  that have hosted the fugitives.
  2. In the DRC, Bosco Ntganda—wanted by the ICC to answer charges of war crimes and child conscription—served as a Congelese general much of the year, until his recent defection and resumption of armed insurgency now threatening civilians in eastern DRC.
  3. In Yemen, President Saleh secured immunity from criminal investigation and prosecution despite widespread and grave human rights violations that demand independent investigation.
  4. In Sri Lanka, impunity for war crimes and other grave abuses committed in the waning months of conflict remain a stain on our fight for justice for victims.
  5. Finally, as atrocities continue in Syria, the Security Council has yet to act on what should be the most non-controversial demand of Amnesty and others: refer the situation to the ICC prosecutor. The crimes committed in Syria evade description in their brutality, and utter rejection of the most basic norms and international law.  Further, they are self-evident crimes of the highest order, and steadfast rejection of the Russian government to refer the situation to the ICC defies all logic and conscience, and threatens the very authority of the Council itself (tell them so here).

Indeed, it is hard to identify any singular interest that champions the ICC as powerful as those defending the Syrian or Sudanese regimes, save our collective power by acting in concert. In addition to the referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC, Amnesty International members are calling on the UN Secretary General to provide all necessary resources to support the arrest and surrender of fugitives from the ICC.

“Justice”—a concept older than any law—is not just about arrests and prosecutions, however. ‘Truth’ and ‘restitution’ for victims are integral to the concept. Amnesty International’s Demand Justice Now—launched today—is a resource for exploring the complexities of international justice, in addition to taking action to bring our collective power to effect.

While discussing International Justice Day, a friend and colleague of mine noted the success of Earth Day in entering the collective consciousness of people across the globe. International Justice Day, a young day of note in comparison, needs to be in our collective consciousness.

It is impossible to delink the atrocities we bear witness to today from our weaknesses in securing justice for abuses of the past. Justice cannot be an afterthought, decoupled from our efforts to protect the threatened and vulnerable. Justice cannot be something sought as political winds or diplomatic expediency favor.

Justice must be demanded now.