VIEWPOINTS, Pg. A37
THE EXTRADITION and trial of Slobodan Milosevic has prompted hopeful speculation in the West. Some have gone so far as to argue that the world is at the dawning of a new era of international legal accountability.
How can this be true given the events of the past decade? During the 1990s, United Nations and world leaders proved unwilling to stop crimes against humanity and genocide in civil wars throughout the globe. The UN’s responses ranged from weak-willed and ineffectual - Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia - to absolutely shameful, Rwanda, East Timor and Sierra Leone. Rather than face the fact that the “never-again” promise had been broken, the UN and many human-rights advocates shifted their efforts from war-crimes prevention to war-crimes punishment, or post-tragedy justice. But can international law ever provide equal justice for all? What are the limits of post-tragedy justice? Most important, can trials ever make up for disgraceful inaction?
Cambodia serves as a useful paradigm for the relationship between powerless nations and international law during the 20th century. Between 1975 and 1979, at least 1 million died as a result of the Khmer Rouge experiment in stone-age communism. After the Vietnamese toppled the regime, did the UN or the United States support efforts to try Khmer Rouge leaders? No, quite the opposite: In 1979, the Jimmy Carter administration voted for the genocidal regime to retain Cambodia’s seat in the UN General Assembly.
Although the UN sent more than 20,000 troops and 5,000 civilian advisers to Cambodia, there was no mention of war crimes in the 1991 Paris Treaty. In the end, the Khmer Rouge was not destroyed by fear of “global justice,” but a 1996 amnesty to Ieng Sary and other Khmer Rouge defectors. After more than two years of contentious negotiations with the UN, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen announced recently that his nation would hold its own war crimes trials with or without United Nations support. The East Timorese were also promised a UN war crimes tribunal in the wake of their 1999 election. Although the decision to end 24 years of Indonesian occupation triumphed at the polls, when pro-Indonesian militias waged war on civilians, the UN fled.
The Australian-led military response came after a thousand civilians had been killed, 70 percent of the nation’s buildings had been destroyed and 200,000 civilians had been moved to concentration camps in West Timor. Despite initial threats by the UN of a war-crimes tribunal, the Indonesian government agreed to try its own war-crimes suspects. After one militia leader was sentenced to house arrest, one UN official remarked, “The sentences make a mockery of the international community’s insistence that justice be done in this horrific case.”
The double standards of contemporary international law became most glaring in Sierra Leone. The Lome Accords, negotiated by Jesse Jackson on behalf of Bill Clinton’s administration, were forced onto Sierra Leone’s elected leader, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, in July, 1999. Not only was Foday Sankoh, leader of a rebel group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), released from captivity. He was granted a vague amnesty and named Sierra Leone’s vice president and commissioner of diamond resources. RUF victim Victoria Kajue was baffled by the West’s decision to reward her children’s killers. “I saw them execute all of my children and a 2-year-old grandson. And I have nowhere to lay a complaint. I have no justice.”
Within months of signing the pact, the RUF resumed killing and mutilating civilians, and even kidnaped hundreds of UN soldiers. In the end, the 11,000 UN troops needed the reinforcement of British commandos and Southern African mercenaries to chase the RUF back into the jungle. Adding insult to injury, the Indian head of the UN military force resigned along with the Indian component of the peacekeeping force. He charged his colleague, a Nigerian, with aiding and abetting the RUF.
When Sankoh was captured by civilians last year, the UN promised Sierra Leone a war crimes tribunal. Today, discussions have stalled. Would perfect international trials in Sierra Leone somehow make up for previous failures? What are the limits of post-tragedy justice? The UN has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try nine men in Tanzania, and close to 100,000 remain in prison in Rwanda.
Has their punishment resurrected the 800,000 hacked to death in 1994 or ended a civil war that now engulfs the Congo? Trials can never make up for shameful inaction in the face of preventable genocide. During the 1990s, war crimes, human rights and post- tragedy justice became industries - complete with self-appointed stars, power brokers and patrons. Most aggressively advance the idea that a Nuremberg-derived system of international criminal law will soon take root. But, by the end of the bloodiest century in human history, the so-called “international community” has grown increasingly indifferent to and accepting of the horrors suffered by its most powerless and politically insignificant members.
Has anything changed other than the lies that we tell ourselves? If Slobodan Milosevic’s extradition and trial marks the dawning of a new era of international law, explain it to Sierra Leone’s Victoria Kajue. “The world seeks justice in Kosovo,” Kajue says. “Are we on a different planet? Are my children worth less than the children in Kosovo.”
BD: War Crimes & Crimes Against Humanity - A collection of recent press releases, petitions, articles and news
BD: Military and political aid to Indonesia - A collection of recent reports, articles and news
BD: Calls for International War Crimes Tribunal - A collection of recent reports, articles and news