Are International Criminal Tribunals Successful?

Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor and expert on international human rights and a former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books expressed a gloomy view of the post-World War II development of international criminal tribunals.

The actions of the U.S. and other great powers have contributed to his negativity. He says, “America is exceptional in combining standard great-power realism with extravagant idealism about the country’s redemptive role in creating international order. . . . [The] US has promoted universal legal norms and the institutions to enforce them, while seeking by hook or by crook to exempt American citizens, especially soldiers, from their actual application. From Nuremberg onward, no country has invested more in the development of international jurisdiction for atrocity crimes and no country has worked harder to make sure that the law it seeks for others does not apply to itself.”

This negative assessment is buttressed by the new memoir by David Scheffer (All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals). Scheffer, who was one of the leading U.S. diplomats involved in the negotiations that created these tribunals, recounts the U.S. resistance to (i) providing U.S. intelligence information to the ICTY; (ii) seeking to arrest the most egregious defendants for the ICTY; and (III) having U.S. citizens, especially soldiers, being subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).  A review of this book is the nominal subject of this essay by Ignatieff.

Scheffer’s post-mortem on his frustrations as the lead U.S. diplomat at the Rome Conference that produced the Rome Statute for the ICC is especially instructive on why the U.S. voted against that treaty at the conclusion of the conference and more generally on the U.S. process for negotiating and ratifying multilateral treaties.

According to Scheffer, there were four main reasons for the inability of the U.S. to advance its positions at the Rome Conference and its eventual vote against the treaty at the conference’s conclusion. U.S. military officials failed to know and understand other nations’ perspectives on the ICC and to explain to other nations the role of the U.S. military after the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless the U.S. military’s opposition to the ICC dictated the terms of the unsuccessful U.S. negotiating positions at the conference. In addition, the U.S. government was unable to make timely policy decisions on key issues being negotiated for the treaty. Thirdly, there are always distractions and other matters clamoring for the attention of the President and his top advisors; for President Clinton and the Rome Conference it was the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Finally, Republican Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Rod Grams of Minnesota, who were vehemently opposed to the idea of an ICC, attended the Rome Conference to make their views known to other governments.

Scheffer also provides important background information on two developments after the Rome Conference that remind us that there are important issues for a treaty like the Rome Statute after its terms have been adopted. First, he successfully pressed for significant U.S. participation in the drafting of the ICC’s Rules of Procedure and Evidence and the Elements of Crimes that helped to alleviate some of the U.S. concerns regarding due process at the new court. Second, Scheffer also was successful in lobbying for the U.S.’ signing the Rome Statute before the end of 2000 (the last possible date for a state’s signing the treaty), which he did on behalf of the U.S. at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on December 31st (a very wintery Sunday New Year’s Eve Day). He, however, was not pleased with some of the details of President Clinton’s signing statement that said the treaty had “significant flaws” and that he would not be submitting the treaty to the Senate for advice and consent. The latter point, says Scheffer, was unnecessary since the Clinton presidency was almost over and since it usually takes years to prepare a treaty for submission to the Senate.

Ignatieff’s negative assessment of the U.S. split personality on this subject is also supported by the fact that the U.S. has been actively involved in the post-1945 negotiation of treaties that establish or codify international human rights norms, but has not ratified 16 such treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Moreover, the U.S. has subjected its ratification of 10 of 16 such treaties to reservations, declarations and understandings that attempt to limit the application of such treaties to the U.S. (David Weissbrodt, Joan Fitzpatrick & Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process at 136-66 (3d ed. 2001).)

We have seen this phenomenon in a prior post‘s examination of the U.S. ratification of the International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and by another post’s noting that Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions has been languishing in the U.S. Senate for 25 years with no action on presidential requests for advice and consent to U.S. ratification of that treaty. Other posts examined the policies toward the ICC in the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama Administrations.

According to Ignatieff, the development of mechanisms of international criminal justice “was supposed to rescue the possibility of universal justice from the revenge frenzies, political compromises, and local partialities of national justice.”  This has not been the case, however, in his opinion, because “international justice turns out to be as much the prisoner of international politics as national justice is of national politics. Indeed, given the stakes, international justice may be more partial, that is, more politicized, than national justice.”

Therefore, he wonders if the creation of the international criminal tribunals—Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and the ICC —has been worth the effort and costs. From 1993 through 2009, he says, these tribunals collectively cost their donors $3.43 billion, but only 131 convictions were obtained.

In the next breath, however, Ignatieff seems to say that the tribunals have been worth all the trouble. He says that no one now is dying from atrocity crimes in Bosnia, or in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, or Rwanda, which have had special international criminal tribunals.  “Justice—imperfect, partial, expensive—has been done and even been seen to be done. In these places, murderous rages have subsided. Some have reconciled. States have achieved stability. People are moving on. One of the reasons for this may be that in some cases justice was done.”

Although I share Ignatieff’s view of the imperfections of the mechanisms of international criminal justice and of U.S. (and other great powers’) resistance to application of such institutions or norms to themselves, I do not agree with his more pessimistic assessment of the development of international criminal tribunals.

First, he pulls the number of convictions at 131 from a table of results (as of December 31, 2010) in the Scheffer book without mentioning or considering these tribunals’ other results according to that table . Nor does Ignatieff attempt to update the table.

Let me first update that table and then discuss the overall results of these tribunals. My examination on April 1, 2012, of the websites for these tribunals revealed the following results with respect to individuals who have been charged with crimes by said tribunals:

Tribunal Pre-Trail Trial Convicted (includes pending appeals) Withdrawn/Dismissed/Acquitted/

Deceased

Referred to Nat’l Court At Large TOTAL
ICTY 2 16   81 49 13   0 161
ICTR 1   3   62 14   3   9   92
Special Ct.-Sierra Leone 0   1     8   2   0   1   12
Extra Chambers Cambodia 5   4     1   0   0   0   10
ICC 7   3     1   6   0 11   28
TOTAL 15 27 153 71 16 21 303

According to this table, Ignatieff understates the convictions by 22, but more importantly he ignores the 16 who have been referred to national courts, the 42 who are still in pre-trial or trial proceedings and the 21 who are still fugitives. Thus, there eventually may be additional convictions for the crimes that have been charged. Moreover, these courts are not machines to produce convictions; they are intended to provide due process guarantees to those charged with crimes, and the 71 individuals who have had charges withdrawn or dismissed or who have been acquitted or who have died before their trials could be completed suggest that these courts have been operating fairly.

Second, Ignatieff ignores the fact that the existence and operation of these tribunals have given incentives and programs to various countries to improve their judicial systems so that eventually they can try individuals for the crimes within the jurisdiction of these international courts. Indeed, 16 of the individuals who have been charged with crimes by these tribunals have had their cases transferred to national court systems. As previously noted, the ICC’s Rome Statute has provisions incorporating the principle of complementarity whereby the ICC defers to national prosecutions by competent national judicial systems.

Third, Ignatieff also ignores the fact that these tribunals have been important in developing a more elaborate international law regarding genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and their precedents can be and are being used by other courts and agencies involved in cases or other proceedings regarding international human rights.

Fourth, Ignatieff fails to acknowledge that these tribunals are only one part of a complex, interactive global struggle against impunity for the worst crimes of concern to the international community. Various posts already have discussed many of these pieces to the puzzle, and a prior post summarized this interactive network

Finally, in my opinion, these tribunals have been successful for the foregoing reasons. The peoples of the world through their nation-state governments have been struggling to climb out of the pits of depravity of World War II by creating or codifying international norms or human rights and by constructing mechanisms to protect individuals that are beyond the control of their own national governments while such governments still have sovereignty over most aspects of their lives. This is an inherently difficult process, and many compromises are necessary in order to make any progress. But the story is not finished. Further developments, I am confident, will occur.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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