Why you should care
Because justice is best served decades late. Wait, what?
At last, Radovan Karadžić is a bona fide war criminal. Earlier this year, he was declared guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Butcher of Bosnia will probably spend the rest of his life behind bars. A victory for the international justice system, right?
Except that Karadžić’s conviction took a whopping 21 years to obtain, and hundreds of millions of dollars besides — running the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia costs some $200 million every year. Theoretically, Karadžić’s conviction could send a message to other tyrants, but it hasn’t seemed to. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, for instance, routinely flouts the International Criminal Court, which has indicted him, blithely traveling to countries that promised to arrest him. Joseph Kony continues recruiting child soldiers. And the ICC didn’t seem to deter Bashar al-Assad from torturing and gassing his own citizens.
All of which makes us wonder: Should we give up on war crimes? Yes, the idea runs counter to centuries of humanitarian thinking and some of the things we tell ourselves about justice and morality. But what is a war crime without enforcement? Without fair, effective prosecution, the notion loses force, even threatens to become a joke. The United States has never submitted to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, but numerous African countries have — at least for now. Pointing out that all but one of the ICC’s inquiries have involved African nations, some countries are threatening to pull out, accusing the tribunal of racism.
Research shows that the ICC doesn’t have much of a deterrent effect on would-be génocidaires, says Jide Nzelibe, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, who studies the ICC’s effectiveness. They’re already “choosing occupational lifestyles that are extremely high risk,” he points out — potential coups, assassinations, etc. — and it’s rather unlikely that some U.N. lawyers would have them shaking in their army boots. “Paradoxically, these individuals may actually be better off being at the Hague than [under] local sanction,” says Nzelibe. Imagine Kony if and when the Sudanese, Ugandans or Congolese capture him: He’ll probably kiss due process goodbye.
Massive amounts of time and money are directed at a tiny handful of war criminals, while hundreds of others go about their daily lives unpunished. With a proposed 2016 budget of 153 million euros, up from 130 million in 2015, the ICC has one helluva per-trial price tag. Since its ratification in 2002, the court has managed just three guilty verdicts. The process is so slow that indictees might meet their maker before getting their day in court; indeed, some have.
To be fair, proving guilt is “extremely difficult,” says Elena Baylis, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has done extensive research in DRC, Kosovo and Sierra Leone — especially connecting “the high-level official with the acts in the field.” Having endured or seen horrific crimes, witnesses are often reluctant to testify. The ICC had to drop its charges against Uhuru Kenyatta, now Kenya’s president, after nearly every witness recanted.
Here’s an idea: Let’s put the billions we’ve spent on international tribunals into local courts, where lawyers and judges know the context better, and which are “often in bad shape at the end of the conflict,” as Baylis says. Trying criminals closer to home would bring justice closer to home — and would help regions develop the ability to hold all kinds of trials, says Baylis. Not just for the big fish.
Have you heard of a would-be war criminal changing his ways out of fear of prosecutions for war crimes? Are you on board with this idea? Let us know.