MONTREAL — An international criminal justice system will never reach its full potential until the United States comes fully on board, the head of a pro-democracy foundation told a Raoul Wallenberg memorial event last week.
Having America’s support would mean powerful nations will be held accountable in the way relatively weaker nations already are, said Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute (OSI), a private foundation funded by financier George Soros that aims to shape public policy and promote democracy worldwide.
Neier was delivering the annual Raoul Wallenberg lecture at McGill University’s law faculty, which was held Jan. 23 under the auspices of the faculty’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.
Neier said his country must take the lead in ratifying the treaty that created the International Criminal Court (ICC) if there is to be any hope that the other major holdouts – Russia and China, as well as smaller countries, often with notorious records like Sudan – follow suit.
Currently, 105 countries are members of the ICC, while another 41 have signed the Rome Statute of 2002 that created the court, but have not ratified it. The ICC is a permanent institution mandated to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Neier thinks there is a chance the United States will become a member after President George W. Bush, whom he described as “particularly hostile” to the ICC, leaves office.
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton signed the treaty just before his term ended, but he never submitted it to the U.S. Senate for ratification, creating a situation whereby the United States could, at least, contribute to the ICC’s deliberations without being subject to its jurisdiction, Neier said.
He criticized the Bush administration for then “unsigning” the treaty, without Senate approval.
“It will be difficult, but not impossible, after Bush, depending on who is president and the composition of the Senate,” he said of a possible U.S. signing. Neier also thinks Russia will be a little more open to signing after President Vladimir Putin leaves office.
Neier described the development of an international criminal justice system over the past 15 years as “the most promising development in the international human rights field in our time” with the potential to heal devastated societies.
Despite their shortcomings, Neier believes the five ad hoc international criminal tribunals established since 1993, starting with one for the former Yugoslavia, have proven their usefulness and underline the need for a permanent system.
“The movement for an international criminal justice system is still in its infancy, and it has had growing pains, and we may not be as optimistic about what it can achieve as we were, but it is still worth pursuing.”
Neier has a strong personal interest in seeing the perpetrators of horrendous crimes brought to justice. He was born in Berlin in 1937 to Polish-Jewish immigrants. The family fled Germany for Britain just two weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland. They emigrated to New York when he was 10.
Neier has headed the OSI since it was founded by Soros in 1993. Previously, he was executive director and a co-founder of Human Rights Watch, and earlier he was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Collectively, the five international criminal tribunals have indicted more than 250 people from 10 countries, including high-ranking government officials and military commanders, he said, despite having no powers of arrest. Two were sitting heads of state: the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Liberian president Charles Taylor.
More recently, a Sudanese cabinet minister and head of the Janjaweed militia were indicted for atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that this represents only a small number of the perpetrators and too few of those at the top. He also said he realizes that the process is “expensive and cumbersome,” and that no government of any world, or even regional, power has ever been held to account.
With Russia, China and the United States being three of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, that is unlikely to change, he said.
A spinoff benefit has been an improvement in the justice systems of some countries, he said, which may affect their societies in the long term.
“After Nuremberg, thousands of more trials [of Nazi war criminals] were held in German courts, which I think created a shared sense of responsibility for the crimes of German society” and led ultimately to Germany’s rehabilitation.
Another benefit of the tribunals has been the virtual absence of “revenge killings” in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – with the exception of “a few dozen” in Kosovo – after criminal regimes there were deposed, he said.
Neier contrasted this situation to that in France after its liberation in World War II, when “at least 10,000” suspected Nazi collaborators were murdered, he said.
The tribunals’ “greatest disappointment,” according to Neier, has been not getting Serbia to acknowledge responsibility for what happened. Serbs still consider themselves more as victims than perpetrators, he said, and have only gone along with the tribunal’s work to the extent needed to maintain favourable relations with Europe and the United States.
Too many Serbs still feel their aggression was justified to avenge the alleged crimes of Croatian fascists during World War II and, further back, of Muslims during the Ottoman Empire.
As for the deterrent effect of the tribunals, Neier said it’s too early to draw any conclusions. But he noted that on the eve of the signing of the Rome Statute in July 2002, the five African nations with armies occupying the Democratic Republic of Congo suddenly withdrew.
Neier recommended that international bodies such as the UN, African Union and European Union agree on new sanctions against governments that don’t turn over those charged by the international tribunals, as well as on a better funding mechanism and greater co-operation among the various international tribunals, such as in conducting investigations and the protection of witnesses.