Global Policy Forum

War Crimes – Have We Learned Anything?


By John Simpson

April 18, 2005

You can't seem to turn the television news on at present without seeing black-and-white pictures of past horrors - Buchenwald last week, Belsen this, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki still to come in August. There was a time when we thought that killing on an industrial scale might be a thing of the past; but, depressingly, the pictures are no longer just in black and white nowadays.

It may be 32 years since General Augusto Pinochet's men began killing left-wingers in Chile, and 30 since the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh to force the entire population out into the killing fields. But it's only 11 years since Rwanda, and 10 since the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, ordered the murder of every male Muslim in Srebrenica. And in Darfur people are dying right now.

Learning lessons

Haven't we learned anything? Are we no further forward than we were 60 years ago? We have learned some things. We even have some valuable case law, from the Nuremberg trials to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But we haven't yet managed to persuade those who think they can slaughter people as a matter of policy that they will inevitably pay a price for doing so.

True, there is justice sometimes. Killers from the Bosnian war are now serving long sentences. Gen Pinochet may not be in jail, but he has not been able to live untouched by the consequences of what he did. The Argentine military leaders who ordered the deaths of 15,000 young people in Argentina between 1976 and 1982 have rarely been free of problems. Some form of tribunal is expected to get under way in Cambodia this year. Many of those who took part in the Rwandan genocide have been arrested.

No real consensus

Yet Gen Mladic and his political master, Radovan Karadzic, the president of the Bosnian Serbs in the early 1990s, are still at liberty, in territory where Nato troops operate freely. No-one has yet convinced President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe that he will be held to account for destroying his country and ruining the lives of his fellow citizens. He has been a welcome guest in France, and was at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in the Vatican last week, even though tens of thousands of Zimbabwean Catholics are being oppressed.

Part of the problem is that there is still no real consensus about what constitutes a crime against humanity. Some people think Argentina and Chile are better off without the generation of left-wingers who disappeared in the 1970s. There are those who think that people like Gen Mladic and President Mugabe and those behind the Janjaweed in Darfur have merely had a bad press. The United Nations has been pretty feeble at dealing with crimes against humanity, because few subjects have more political resonance.

World court

An organisation which is so subject to national political considerations is scarcely the best place to deal with such crimes. But we do now have the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, which can investigate and prosecute people for genocide and war crimes. It was set up in 2002, and has its own judges and its own chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, who took part in the trials of Argentina's former military junta. When the Court was established by an international conference in Rome, only seven countries voted against. They included China, Israel, the United States, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

American hostility towards the ICC, which is based on fears of politically motivated (in other words, anti-American) prosecutions, has lessened slightly as a result of the Darfur crisis. It eventually agreed to let those accused of atrocities in Darfur be tried at The Hague, as long as Americans and people from other countries which have not ratified the Court would only be tried in their home countries if they too were accused of war crimes. But the result is that only three years after the ICC came into being, it is already subject to the same kind of national pressures which have stopped the UN dealing effectively with crimes against humanity.

Painful memories

The other week I went to the premií¨re in London of Hotel Rwanda, a film about one man's efforts to save people from the genocide there in 1994. It was beautifully acted, well written, cleverly filmed, and it brought back so many memories of my time in Rwanda. Of wandering through an empty nunnery whose inhabitants had been raped and murdered. Of trying to find a place to sleep in rooms where the floor was covered with recent blood. Of the terror in people's faces. And of the heroism of a few, like the manager of the hotel, who saved many lives.

But has Hotel Rwanda been a success at the box-office? Guess. It takes more than shaking our heads over old television pictures of piles of bodies to make sure that these terrible crimes aren't repeated. Governments will never take enthusiastic action unless they think we really care about these things.

More Information on International Justice
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