After Mladic and Taylor, What’s the Future for War-Crimes Trials?

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Two war-crimes trials underway at The Hague have drawn notice for their high-profile suspects.

Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander went on trial Wednesday to face charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, (though the trial was temporarily suspended today). And Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was convicted in April on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international humanitarian law.

Taylor and Mladic are both being tried by U.N.-backed tribunals, set up specifically for these incidents. Once they’re done, the major arbiter of global justice will be the International Criminal Court, which has a broad mandate that allows it to pursue cases referred by a state, the U.N., or even on its own, if the prosecutor determines that atrocities haven’t been accounted for in the country where they were committed.

But the ICC has a mixed record. After 10 years in operation, it has only managed to deliver one verdict: the March conviction of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, for recruiting child soldiers.   

David Kaye, the executive director of the International Human Rights Law Program at the University of California Los Angeles, told FRONTLINE that the “jury’s still out” on whether the court can be labeled a success.

As the ICC has taken on more cases, it’s had to stretch its resources, which has made international accountability — already a lengthy, complicated process — more challenging, Kaye said.

The ICC currently has 15 cases in the works, including an indictment against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for his alleged role in atrocities in Darfur, and the conviction of Lubanga, who has yet to be sentenced.

A trial is currently underway against several high-ranking Kenyans accused of crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in tribal clashes in the East African country. The indictments surprised many in Kenya — including the suspects — who doubted that anyone would ever answer for the violence that killed more than 1,000 people in a few short months in late 2007 and 2008.

And the prosecutor’s office currently is investigating situations in Libya, Afghanistan, Georgia, Guinea, Colombia, Honduras, Korea and Nigeria.

“I think the court or the prosecutor sometimes needs to say no,” Kaye said. “Not every bad situation is the kind of situation that the court should look into, investigate.”

Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo conceded in an interview earlier this year with the Global Observatory, a publication of the International Peace Institute, a think-tank, that the court has taken on a large workload — “more than we had expected,” he said.

The move was done in part to raise the court’s profile to make it a more effective deterrent, according to Moreno-Ocampo. The indictment against al-Bashir, for example, was described as “historic.”

“In a few years, we have turned the Court into an institution that is part of the international landscape,” Moreno-Ocampo said in the interview, maintaining that the indictment sends a strong message to other leaders:  

“What is happening today is there is a rule; very clear. Political leaders cannot gain or stay in power committing massive atrocities.”

But al-Bashir remains in power and is apparently continuing to bomb civilians.

The court has received considerable criticism from African leaders, who note that all 15 cases currently under investigation are based in Africa.

ICC Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, a former justice minister from Gambia, has defended the court:

We say that ICC is targeting Africans, but all of the victims in our cases in Africa are African victims. They are not from another continent.  They are African victims and they are the ones who are suffering these crimes.

Bensouda will soon be the new, African face of the ICC. Elected unanimously by the court’s member states to replace Moreno-Ocampo, she will be sworn in next month. In recent remarks, she said the court was “changing international relations forever.”

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