The United Nations General Assembly held a controversial ‘debate’ last week on the subject of international criminal justice and reconciliation. I was invited to participate in one of the expert panels, and a copy of my prepared remarks can be found here. For the General Assembly, check here.
Arriving at United Nations headquarters in New York on Wednesday morning, I was taken by surprise to learn about a storm that had been brewing around this event. When I had been invited to participate several weeks earlier, by the President of the General Assembly, panellists listed for the expert sessions included Kenneth Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch, David Tolbert, former deputy prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and Tiina Intelmann, President of the Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court. There was nothing to suggest that eloquent advocates favouring the international criminal justice institutions would not be present.
But by Wednesday morning, Ken, David and Tiina had all withdrawn. I was told that others, like President Meron of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, had declined an invitation to participate. Moreover, a European diplomat I met before the meeting started told me that the EU would be boycotting the afternoon session. In its statement during the morning session, the EU cast aspersions on the integrity of the panellists, something that I did not particularly appreciate. I was told that Canada was staying away, but I certainly saw someone take the nameplate for Canada and attend the morning session.
The General Assembly debate was opened on Wednesday morning by Ban Ki Moon. The morning portion of the meeting consisted of statements by members of the General Assembly, with priority given to the two heads of state in attendance: Tomislav Nikolić of Serbia and Nebojša Radmanović of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Predictably, the two presidents were very critical of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. There was much talk about bias in the selection of defendants and in the length of sentences that have been imposed, as well as complaints about the recent acquittal of Croatian general Gotovina and Kosovar politician Haradinaj. I don’t think either of them mentioned the more recent acquittal of Serb general Perisic. They were followed by a number of other speakers, some of them very supportive of international criminal justice, like the EU and some of the Latin American and Caribbean states, and others more sceptical, like Namibia and China. I had some satisfaction seeing the nameplate of the ‘State of Palestine’ and listening to the remarks of its delegate.
Rwanda was represented by its minister of justice, Tharcisse Karugarama, who had his own critique of international justice, although his arguments were hardly the same as those of the two Serb presidents. The Rwandan minister claimed that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had not contributed to reconciliation, although how he could know this is a mystery to me. He seemed to think that there was reconciliation in Rwanda, but that it was due to the gacaca trials. Perhaps. But perhaps both the International Tribunal and the gacaca trials contributed to the process. It is interesting that Minister Karugarama seems to think that there has been a degree of reconciliation, something the Serb presidents denied entirely. But the latter seemed to confuse reconciliation with anger about the Gotovina acquittal.
There was also much discussion of the International Criminal Court. Several delegates singled out problems with the Security Council referrals to the Court, noting that this did not contribute to the independence and impartiality of the institution. Illegal clauses in the resolutions concerning funding of the Court and immunity for certain categories of individual were mentioned specifically.
When the time came for my panel, late in the day, I felt compelled to adjust my prepared remarks on reconciliation in order to answer much of the unreasonable and unfair criticism that had been made of international justice. I was left largely alone, because those who were most friendly to international justice, not to mention representatives of the International Criminal Court and the International Tribunals, were absent. The panellists were a mixed bag, and some of them strayed far from the topic at hand. There was some unproductive harping on oldarguments that are no longer of any significance, like the now irrelevant grumble that the Security Council has no authority to create tribunals.
Finally, I didn’t need to change that much of what I had planned to say, because the main point in my prepared remarks was that reconciliation is only one of several objectives of international justice. There is much evidence that the other purposes – principally peace and deterrence – have been achieved. International justice can’t take sole credit for the fact that the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone have been at peace for more than a decade. But nor is it reasonable to gainsay the contribution that the institutions have made. As for reconciliation, this is something that takes much longer, probably many decades and generations. It is plainly wrong to dismiss the significance of the international criminal tribunals by claiming that they have failed to achieve reconciliation.
At the close of the day, the President of the General Assembly said there had been unprecedented interest in the debate, and that the session would continue at least into the next day because many delegations had requested the right to speak. I could not stay in New York, but there is a press release on the remainder of the debate. For the press release on Wednesday's meeting, see here.
I’m not a big fan of boycotting debates, especially when they take place in a forum of such importance as the United Nations General Assembly. The expression of views that took place last Wednesday was unprecedented. What did it show, finally?
The voices that might be characterised as truly hostile to international justice were not really very numerous. The criticisms that were made on Wednesday tended to be too harsh and one-sided, and this certainly undermined their credibility. The Serb president, for example, might have acknowledged the acquittal of General Perisic. For that matter, he might have recognised that Serbia as a state has not generally had responsibility attributed to it for the atrocities that took place during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I suppose that had Bosnia and Herzegovina been represented by a Bosniac president instead of a Serb president, we might have heard a different complaint about the Tribunal. As for Rwanda, to the extent it wants to claim that there is indeed a degree of justice and reconciliation, some recognition of the contribution by the Tribunal might be in order.
Criticism is good for the international tribunals and for the International Criminal Court. Many supporters of this movement rarely hear the voices of the sceptics, most of whom come from the global south. The objections need to be taken seriously and they need to be addressed rather than ignored or dismissed.
The President of the General Assembly will be preparing a report on the debate.