War crimes punishment on a roll
Associate since 1991
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January 4th, 2010
It’s all coming along very nicely - the threat to arrest war criminals and those charged with crimes against humanity. Who would have thought in the days of the Vietnam and Cambodia wars, the civil war in ex-Yugoslavia, the pogrom in Rwanda and perhaps soon the architects of torture in the recent U.S. Administration of George W. Bush, that the hand of international justice would be reaching out to arrest the protagonists, try them and imprison them?
After the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials in 1945 and 1946 of the wartime leaders of Germany and Japan there was a hiatus, finally broken when in 1975 most of the world signed the Convention against Torture. Then there was an even broader treaty when the Convention Against War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity was signed in Rome in June, 1998. In October, 1998, Scotland Yard arrested the ex dictator of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet, in a clinic in London. After long court hearings, for the first time anywhere a high court decided that sovereign immunity must not be allowed to become sovereign impunity.
The ball rolls with gathering speed. Early last month, a London judge issued an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Israeli opposition and before that foreign minister. She was indicted for her role in Israel’s operation “Cast Lead” when its forces assaulted the Gaza Strip earlier in the year. Ms Livni avoided arrest by cancelling her trip. The British government was embarrassed but could do nothing. Effectively she is under the same threat if she visits any European state, indeed most of the countries of the world, bar China, India, the U.S. and Russia which have yet to sign the Rome Treaty.
Also last month, Kenya’s president and prime minister stopped a list of politicians implicated in post-election violence from being sent to the International Criminal Court by agreeing to set up a tribunal to try them at home. (This is always the first choice of the Court.) The envelope containing the names of those implicated holds names drawn up the UN mediator, its former secretary-general, Kofi Annan.
Last summer Britain again broke new ground when it sent a former Afghan warlord to prison for torture and hostage taking even though he committed the crimes outside Britain.
Chile and Argentina are continuing to clean up the horrors of the 1970s and 80s when they were both ruled by murderous tyrants. Many argue for moving on rather than re-opening old wounds. But the prevailing opinion is that without justice there can be no healing and no guarantee of the rule of law. Chile’s prime minister’s own father was tortured to death by the Pinochet government.
The other Latin American countries with a legacy of serious crimes against humanity have only relatively recently begun dealing with the crimes of the past- Uruguay, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Sudan’s government decided two weeks ago to go ahead with the promised referendum on the status of the south where for decades an insurgency has challenged the central authority of the government. The government has been prevaricating, but it seems the threat of prosecution together with the decline oil revenues have made it more cooperative.
Already more Africans have been charged by the Court and its affiliates in Arusha and Sierra Leone than from any other continent. This is not, as some charge, because of a racial bias in the courts but because during the 1980s and 90s Africa was the site of the world’s most bloody wars. Now its wars have all but disappeared, but the mess remains to be cleared up if future evil strongmen are to be deterred and the families of those tortured, raped and killed are to be given some peace of mind.
It is very likely that president Barack Obama will lead his country into the Rome Treaty, but not for a while. The Senate will be tough on the treaty, even though the military have softened their opposition now they have seen how it works in practice. If the U.S. does join the other recalcitrants won’t be far behind.
Meanwhile, the U.S. at home, thanks to its Alien Torts Act of 1789, is proceeding with a lawsuit alleging that the Shell oil company was complicit in the death of the Nigerian poet, novelist and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by the military regime thirteen years ago. This is only one of a number of prosecutions involving big multinationals, including pharmaceuticals and banking, and reaching as far back as the days of apartheid.
The ball rolls on, an immense force in the battle for raising the standards of human rights practices.
Copyright © 2010 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
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of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging
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hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.
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