Bridging the Divide Between International Human Rights Inquiries and Criminal Prosecutions

By Maura Sokol

On February 28th, the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute hosted a lecture by Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp, the Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Visiting Professor of Human Rights for 2017-2018. Ambassador Rapp was the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice under President Obama from 2009 to 2015. In the position, Ambassador Rapp traveled the world extensively and worked with the Secretary of State to formulate US policy regarding the prevention and accountability of mass atrocities.

Ambassador Rapp began his lecture by acknowledging the potential tension between criminal justice and human rights but asserted that the effective pursuit of these two concepts is essentially the same and needs to be the same. In both the United States and in international law, the criminal justice process is only successful when it works with the trust of victims and victimized communities. Criminal prosecution efforts must reinforce norms against violence and abusive conduct.  

Ambassador Rapp also explained some of the history behind international criminal prosecutions and human rights. Historically, national leaders did not have to worry about facing consequences for their crimes due to the concept of sovereignty; even if they violated international treaties or harmed individuals across borders, this concept kept them largely safe from international action. Ambassador Rapp asserted that this all began to change at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. The key to Nuremberg, he says, was individual responsibility, the prosecution of men and not states or entities. This allowed for the international community to hold individuals accountable for war crimes without intruding on a nation’s sovereignty.

Another key to the Nuremberg trials was that they were organized by all of the world’s great powers at the time, and justice was not dictated by global politics. The support or lack thereof from all global powers in international criminal justice has had a huge impact on its success or failure.  This helps to explain why the Nuremberg efforts ended with the beginning of the Cold War, and not again until the end of the Cold War was there a global effort to hold individuals accountable for international crimes. This effort began again with a number of tribunals, most notably the tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda enacted through the United Nations Security Council.

A third element that Ambassador Rapp believes was essential to Nuremberg, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and other tribunals, was extensive investigations and fact-finding missions. The evidence gathered by these inquiries, sometimes gathered while the crimes were being committed, was essential to the pursuit of international criminal justice. It is useful on the one hand for linking crimes at a low level to the powerful men at the top who keep their hands clean but orchestrate the crimes. It is also useful because it provides the “big picture”, which is important to establish the required proof of context and intent for international crimes. 

The global picture is very different in 2018: many of the tribunals have closed or are in their final stages, the International Criminal Court is on shaky ground, and gaps in justice have become more apparent. The worst crimes being committed today are in places where international courts do not have jurisdiction, and Russia and China will veto efforts to create jurisdiction. Where Russia once only used their Security Council veto strategically, Russia now uses the veto power to undermine efforts to promote human rights everywhere. China argues that atrocities by countries are internal affairs. Countries that have long respected the rule of law are moving in the other direction, and increasingly leaders are elected who demonstrate a disrespect for human rights.

So, what is positive and what is possible in this new world? For one, the United Nations Human Rights Council has taken up many causes after action is blocked in the Security Council. These efforts have been successful for Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar, and many others. There are some vast differences between “soft” human rights law and the process of prosecuting international crimes, and progress must be made in efforts to bridge these two processes. Evidence collection is still crucial, and there are too many insufficiencies in inquiries and fact-finding missions that must be corrected. However, in the absence of the support that was once there from some of the great powers, if victims take up the cause and have the evidence, it is possible to build the support on the international level.


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