5 Steps Forward, 5 Steps Back: Catching and Convicting War Criminals

international justice fugatives

Click image to view full infographic and list of wanted fugatives

Today, supporters of human rights mark the Global Day for International Justice, an anniversary the need for which makes ‘celebration’ difficult, if not impossible.  A cursory look over last year of developments as it relates to securing justice for the most egregious of crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide—might yield cause for optimism, however.

Five Steps Forward for Justice

  1. Over the last year, following a UN Security Council referral of Libya, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found reasonable grounds for issuing arrest warrants for top Libyan officials, even as conflict was ongoing, demonstrating the ability and importance of the court in active crises.
  2. The ICC saw the first verdict and sentence handed down as Thomas Lubanga answered for conscription of children in devastating conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
  3. Also over the last year, Laurent Gbagbo, the former head of state of Cote d’Ivoire, became the first head of state to be surrendered to the ICC for alleged crimes, only one week after his indictment.
  4. At the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, Ratko Mladic finally faces prosecution for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for the largest mass murder in Europe since the end of World War II.
  5. The first conviction of a former head of state since the Nuremburg trials, as my colleague Angela Chang describes, was a historic step for international justice.


War Criminals Are Running Out Of Time – And Space

A statement in an AP story, relating to the start of the trial of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic, recently caught my attention:

… the fact that he [Mladic] is jailed and on trial is seen as another victory for international justice and hailed by observers as evidence that — more often than not — war crimes tribunals get their indicted suspects, even if years later.

This is a very optimistic and strong statement regarding the current state of international justice. Is the reason for optimism justified? I absolutely think so.

Let’s recap some of the recent historic events to bolster my argument that time’s up for war criminals:

  1. The first conviction of a former head of state for international crimes since the Nuremberg trials: Charles Taylor, Mr. Blood Diamond, was convicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in late April.
  2. Milestone verdict on child soldiers and the ICC’s first verdict: Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord, was found guilty in March of the war crime of using children in armed conflict.
  3. The Mladic trial: 17 years after Srebrenica―infamously known as “Europe’s worst massacre since World War II”―Ratko Mladic had his first day in court on May 16. He faces genocide charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Mladic allegedly orchestrated the killing of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995. The completion of his trial could mark a milestone for the survivors, who did not see a verdict against Slobodan Milošević (who passed away while on trial in 2006).
  4. The unanimous referral by the UN Security Council of the situation in Libya to the ICC. The vote in February 2011 showed a surprising shift in positions when all 15 members―including non-state parties to the ICC such as the United States and Russia―voted in favor of a referral.