A version of the following piece was first published in the International Herald Tribune on July 17, 2012.
The International Criminal Court made headlines in July by pronouncing its first sentence, on Thomas Lubanga, a former Congolese warlord who forced children into combat. A decade after the ICC opened its doors, the completion of its first trial marked a major milestone in the development of international justice.
But even as the ICC savors this achievement, the court is struggling to deal with growing demands for justice that it can’t satisfy. The ICC has the capacity to try only a handful of perpetrators in any conflict. Though Lubanga has been convicted, many who committed rape and murder remain at large, limiting the court’s deterrent impact. If the world is to make good on the promise of “never again,” states must shoulder more of the burden by redressing atrocities — not before the ICC in The Hague, but in their own national courts.
Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. Latin America has the longest experience in bringing former leaders to account. Argentina led the way with its trial in 1985 of members of the military juntas that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. The 1998 arrest in London of former Chilean military ruler Augusto Pinochet helped break the wall of silence in his home country.
More recently, in 2009, a court in Peru found ex-president Alberto Fujimori guilty of crimes against humanity for his role in abuses committed by the country’s security forces during the 1990s. In 2010, more than three decades out of power, the former Uruguayan dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry was convicted of murder. And this January, a judge in Guatemala ordered the former strongman Efraín Ríos Montt to trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for massacres carried out during his rule in the early 1980s.
In other parts of the globe, domestic prosecutions for serious crimes are less common. But they are not unknown. The Sarajevo-based Bosnian War Crimes Chamber, launched with international backing, has convicted over 100 individuals in seven years in proceedings generally considered professional.
Since 2009, a mobile court in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, staffed by Congolese officers, has heard over 250 cases—at a fraction of the cost of an international tribunal.
And yet national courts have yet to try the former Chadian ruler Hissène Habré or Haiti’s once president Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Although it recently established a truth commission, Brazil has not prosecuted a single military officer for crimes which took place during its 1964-85 dictatorship.
The World Bank has underscored that states that fail to address past atrocities are vulnerable to recurrent violence and poverty. Enabling the domestic prosecution of international crimes must become a core component of aid packages.
Improving capacity is not enough. As William Hague, the British foreign secretary, succinctly put it in July, “the overriding missing ingredient is political will.” That’s a message worth repeating — not just in Kinshasa and Kabul, but in Western capitals as well.
Washington’s voice on this issue is sadly diminished by its failure to charge any senior U.S. official for torture or other offenses committed in the “war on terror.” The United Nations Security Council loses credibility when, as in last October’s resolution on the transfer of power in Yemen, it appears to condone immunity from prosecution for outgoing presidents.
This September, when heads of state come to New York for the UN General Assembly, they have an opportunity to get serious about serious crimes in talks devoted this year to promoting the rule of law.
This could be just another talk shop or it could be used by states to commit themselves to a few concrete steps. What about amending criminal codes to incorporate modern definitions of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide? Or establishing specially trained prosecution and witness-protection units to address these crimes?
Such steps lack the headline-grabbing drama of a high-profile trial at The Hague. But they are vitally important if we are to build a truly effective system for addressing and deterring humanity’s worst crimes.
Over the past decade, the ICC has emerged as a beacon of hope for those who seek justice for such atrocities. It is time for governments to make sure that light can be mirrored and magnified in countries all around the world.