Human rights groups are condemning what they say is an ill-timed attack late last week on the ad hoc international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda by Washington's war crimes ambassador-at-large.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the ambassador, Pierre-Richard Prosper, of threatening efforts to achieve justice on behalf of victims of some of the gravest crimes with his criticisms last week over the cost, efficiency, and scope of the tribunals.
His remarks--that the "costly" and "slow" courts should complete their work no later than 2008 and focus more narrowly on those "who bear the greatest responsibility" for crimes tried by the courts--came during the third week of the trial in The Hague of former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, and on the same day that NATO troops tried unsuccessfully to nab former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in a southeastern Bosnian town.
"For Pierre Prosper to make his comments at a time when the court has begun the most important international criminal trial since Nuremberg - and when the accused, Slobodan Milosevic, is calling into question the legitimacy of the tribunal - that is totally incomprehensible," said Richard Dicker, head of HRW's international justice program. "The US government is jeopardizing that effort."
William Pace, head of the World Federalist Association (WFA)--which leads a coalition of groups favoring the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) to try cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity--pointed out that the total budget for the tribunal on the former Yugoslavia amounted to half of one percent of what NATO spent in a whole year of military operations in the Balkan country.
Some suggested that Prosper's attack was intended in part to weaken support for the international system of justice at precisely the moment when the ICC is on the verge of becoming a reality. They fear it could signal a broader campaign against the Court, as has been urged by right-wing lawmakers in the US Congress.
"The timing of this attack is particularly disturbing," said Alex Arriaga of Amnesty International USA, "as the world witnesses both the trial of Milosevic and the impending coming into force of the ICC."
The 1998 Rome Statute, the international treaty to create the ICC, will take effect after 60 countries have ratified it. As of last month, 52 countries had deposited their ratification with the United Nations, and most observers believe the goal should be reached by July.
Although President Bill Clinton signed the 1998 Rome Statute, he never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. Prosper made clear in his testimony before the House International Relations Committee last week that the Bush administration not only had no intention of doing so, but would also refuse to recognize the ICC's scope as long as Washington did not ratify it.
"It does not and should not have jurisdiction over a non-party state," said Prosper, instead suggesting that the international community increase support for domestic systems of justice in the Balkan region, Rwanda, and other countries, including Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor, for which special international courts have been proposed.
"It's a nice idea but the justice system in Belgrade is nowhere near ready, and the same is true of the system in [Rwanda's capital] Kigali," said HRW's Dicker. "With so many senior indicted officials at liberty in Yugoslavia, it is folly to talk about leaving most suspects to domestic justice systems."
The Rwandan government has proposed using gacaca trials at the community level for those accused of serious rights abuses committed during the 1994 genocide in which almost one million people were killed. In such trials, the accused are "tried" by members of their communities.
Prosper noted that Washington is exploring "creative approaches" such as the gacaca system to deal with lower or mid-level officials responsible for genocide or crimes against humanity. But, as Dicker noted, the system lacks "adequate safeguards for the victims and the accused."
While both Dicker and Amnesty's Arriaga conceded that there have been instances of mismanagement, especially with the Rwanda Tribunal, based in Arusha, Tanzania, they said Washington should maintain steadfast support. "Their fundamental integrity and importance in administering justice is beyond dispute," said Dicker.
Of more than 70 people who have been indicted at the Rwanda court, nine have been tried and 17 are currently on trial. Of 80 indicted at the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, 31 have been tried, and 12 more, including Milosevic, are currently on trial.
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