Facing History and Ourselves: GA Debate on the Role of International Criminal Justice in Reconciliation

15 Apr

On April 10, the President of the General Assembly’s Office initiated a 1 ½ day event focused on the relationship of international justice – specifically the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – and prospects for national and regional reconciliation. The President of the GA offered opening remarks.

The event drew a large crowd of diplomats and a few civil society representatives, though many of the folks we spoke with came for the spectacle as much as for the content.    Many were aware of the decision by several invited persons – including Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch – to cancel their participation in the event precisely because of the specter of a contentious and one-sided event that hung over the room.

Those who chose to stay away had their share of good reasons to do so.  The event itself was a carefully choreographed and at times intellectually dishonest exercise that sought to rehabilitate the reputation of the Serbian government and people by attacking the foundations of the system of international justice for which Serbian government behavior was an initial impetus.

The event may have done more to polarize the international community than to help explore legitimate concerns regarding the effectiveness of our international legal architecture, specifically concerns focused on the unresolved inconsistencies of the system of justice established by the UN Security Council – itself a politically compromised body.   Sadly the event did too little to enhance understanding of how international law functions, the nature and limitation of Tribunal mandates, or the complementary functions needed to establish conditions of positive reconciliation.  It should be noted here that it was not specifically the task of the Tribunal to promote conditions for reconciliation divorced from (often neglected) initiatives by other parts of the UN system let alone by the regional States themselves.

Nor was there any discussion of how the behavior of Serbs and others led us down the path where Tribunals were considered to be a viable option to national courts which, 20 years after this phase of violence commenced, have still proven themselves unwilling and unable to prosecute their own.   The Serbs-as-victims line is not completely without merit, insofar as international efforts to end impunity were selective and inadvertently reinforced negative stereotypes about Serbian ethnic communities, even regarding the ability of their newly elected representatives to contribute as viable members of the international community.  But such damage has remedial options that should have been explored carefully, one of which should NOT have been calls to dismantle the Tribunal, especially with key figures still awaiting trial. Moreover, we must have more clarity regarding what is wrong with the Tribunals, what can be fixed, and how we would avoid making the same mistakes again in other international fora mandated to end impunity for the most horrible, State-sanctioned crimes.

There is certainly merit to attempts to understand more clearly the limitations and compromises of our system of international criminal justice.   They clearly exist, and it would be wrong to sweep them under the rug.   At the same time, many of the complaints throughout the event were as unbalanced as the alleged behaviors of international prosecutors and their judicial processes.   Below I attempt to wade through what I and others felt to be a swamp of sloppy and compromised analysis to make the following points:

  • While it is important for any Tribunal to be sensitive to the impacts of their prosecutions and convictions on public perceptions, it is commonplace for victims of abuse to be dissatisfied with the results of court action that presumes to apply justice to victims’ allegations.   Courts must weigh options and evidence.   They cannot convict if there is insufficient evidence, regardless of the need of victims for conviction.   Nor can a Tribunal impose punitive measures beyond relevant sentencing guidelines.   It would appear that the Tribunal did its work within an environment where governments and constituents were rooting for it to fail.   That it has partially succeeded in fulfilling its mandate has little to do with levels of regional cooperation, including efforts to understand and work with the Tribunal’s limitations.  The Tribunal was treated by many as more like a tax collector to be spurned than a reconciler to be welcomed, officials’ contentions to the contrary.
  • Moreover, a Tribunal is not responsible for addressing all violations of law, but only those that rise to a level that establishes a clear and compelling interest for international prosecutors. While many of us, for good reason, recoil from the notion of symbolic justice – that is, prosecuting some as a ‘lesson’ to others – there is clearly a tendency to focus the attention of Tribunals on the highest established levels of accountability for gross violence and violations of rights.  Given the many resource and political limitations of the Tribunal, there is little justification for spending time on the equivalent of ‘street level drug dealers’ when the narcotics bosses are firmly within your sights.
  • Tribunals were established by the Security Council as a function of its (self-perceived) Charter-mandated responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.   Many States are uncomfortable (as are we) with the recent history of Council effort to expand its own mandate beyond what we believe to be the intent of the Charter.  Nevertheless, it is not clear where the viable, authorized alternatives might be to Council oversight of peace and security concerns, especially if we accept, which some on the panels clearly did not, that State “sovereignty implies responsibility” for the protection of civilian populations.  Invoking a recycled, Westphalian notion of sovereignty, as some participants did, was most unfortunate.   States participate in the UN, not because it is perfect or because they are rushing to cede national authority to international institutions, but because they recognize the limitations of State centrism in a multi-polar world.     There are things that States want and need that they simply cannot get within a system that holds them solely and rigorously responsible for all internal matters – including the economy, security and international justice.
  • As highlighted on day 2 of the GA debate, a clear majority of States continue to support (in theory and even in practice) the work of international Tribunals while affirming the duty of responsible parties to ensure that justice is pursued in a fair, impartial and vigorous manner.  But it is also clear that ‘responsible parties’ are not confined to Council members and Tribunal officials.   They also include States and the political entities within States.   It is clear to most States that the fair and equitable pursuit of justice in countries wracked by ethnic bitterness and massive human rights violations – let alone the larger agendas of national and regional reconciliation – cannot find success in the absence of support from those very same regional governments.      It was disturbing to many participants at this event that so few commitments to reconciliation – new or existing – were made or highlighted by the very States that were criticizing the limitations of the Tribunal in this area.      It is unfortunate at best for States that have not done nearly enough to foster national and regional reconciliation to claim that a Tribunal somehow has ‘magic bullets’ to share in this area.
  • National justice systems, as many States acknowledge, are ultimately the best setting for the adjudication of grave violations of human rights.   As our program partners in Guatemala indicate, their national courts are taking responsibility for sexual slavery and other crimes committed under previous governments, albeit tentatively and belatedly. National courts in Guatemala have advantages that do not accrue to international Tribunals, including having a more contextualized understanding of the impact of indictments and prosecutions on elements as diverse as national mood and access to justice.  We must utilize and support national judicial authorities wherever it is practical to do so, though the opinion of most at the GA debate is that we must also be able to supplement such capacity at the international level where needed.

At the end of the day, the debate failed some basic tenets of intellectual and political viability.   For instance, it seemed odd at best to attack the Tribunal for not solving problems inconsistent with its mandate, while essentially letting off the hook States and other stakeholders for which reconciliation tasks are very much within their sphere of responsibility.  Moreover,  to dismiss (as did some ‘scholars’ in this process) the relevance of international criminal justice altogether without any viable alternatives  or suggestions for practically modifying the limitations which were legitimately called to account seemed to us to be an unprofessional attempt to toss the baby out with the bathwater.

We can do better than this.  Thankfully, many participating States pointed us in a more fruitful way forward.

 

—Dr. Robert Zuber

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: