The international community and UN Security Council have faced a multitude of crises over the last few years, but there’s little to no accountability for the crimes being committed within them, said Philippe Bolopion, Deputy Director for Global Advocacy at Human Rights Watch.
“The most blatant example of this is the situation in Syria, where crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed for years now,” he said, “where according to the UN close to 250,000 people have been killed, and yet no one has been held accountable for this.”
According to Mr. Bolopion, some of the best mechanisms to ensure justice and accountability for human rights include adopting a comprehensive and creative approach that avoids a one-size fits all method.
“The ICC (International Criminal Court) in some cases is the appropriate body to provide accountability for the crimes committed, provided that the court has the right financial support, the right political backing,” he argued. “The ICC in isolation is not a silver bullet—it needs the support of states.”
However, the preferred option is always for national and domestic authorities to prosecute serious crimes, but Mr. Bolopion noted that it doesn’t happen often. One solution could be hybrid tribunals, in which international and domestic justice institutions work together.
“We need to see these tribunals function effectively, and deliver on justice for the victims of these crimes,” he said. “The victims of crimes want justice, and when justice is denied it breeds resentment, it breeds conflict, it breeds further violations down the line.”
Mr. Bolopion spoke to Nadia Mughal of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, on the margins of ICM’s tenth retreat, on justice, human rights, and the international legal system, held on December 11-12th.
At the session earlier you made a point that in the international justice system, impunity is largely the norm and accountability is largely the exception. Can you talk a little more about that?
Sadly, we are facing over the last few years a multiplication of crises in the international arena, and the UN Security Council is faced with very challenging situations, whether it’s in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, the Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, the list goes on and on.
In most of these conflicts and crises, sadly, there is little to no accountability for the very serious crimes that are being committed. The most blatant example of this is the situation in Syria where crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed for years now where according to the UN close to 250,000 people have been killed, and yet no one has been held accountable for this.
I would say that at this stage there is no clear path towards future accountability, and sadly, it’s just an example of things that are happening in many other places. The conflict in Yemen, for example, these days is marked by very serious human rights violations, and there too, there is a sense that no justice is being provided for the victims of these crimes.
When people sometimes complain that there are too many African situations on the agenda of the International Criminal Court (ICC), our response is that the problem is not that there is too much justice for Africa, it’s that there is not enough justice for many other places around the world that very much deserve it.
Turning to hybrid tribunals and their capacity to achieve better national ownership: does that really work when in some cases these tribunals are, to some extent, imposed by the international community on a country perhaps not in a position to refuse, such as the Central African Republic?
The special criminal court in the Central African Republic was negotiated with the government, it was endorsed by the parliament, and so it comes with a great deal of cooperation from the local authorities. In fact, it’s very hard to imagine any kind of hybrid tribunal working without buy-in from the local authorities.
When people present justice as being imposed on people from the outside, I can tell you we have talked to many victims of the crimes in the Central African Republic. We have documented extensively the horrendous violations that they have faced for months and months, and none of them have expressed any concern that justice was imposed on them. In fact, all are crying for justice and are deeply disturbed that no justice has been provided.
The Central African Republic is a perfect example. Thousands of people have been killed, entire sections of the population have been displaced, the resources of the country have been plundered, and yet no one has been held accountable for these crimes. A lot of people responsible for horrendous crimes in the country are walking free. So again, the problem here is not that the international community would have imposed a tribunal or a form or justice that would not be welcomed by the population; the problem is impunity.
You said the ICC is not a panacea for the international justice system, highlighting issues such as the slow pace of justice and the lack of follow-up from the UN Security Council. What would be some of the best mechanisms to ensure justice and accountability for human rights outside of the Security Council?
I think we have to adopt a comprehensive and creative approach to accountability in some cases so there’s not a one size fits all. The ICC in some cases is the appropriate body to provide accountability for the crimes committed, provided that the court has the right financial support, the right political backing.
What’s happened, for example, with the Darfur Referral—this is the referral of the situation in Darfur to the ICC—is that very quickly the Security Council has left the court to fend for itself and does not provide the necessary backing to make sure that the prosecutions could be ultimately successful and that fugitives of the court, like President Bashir—who’s a fugitive for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, for genocide—would be arrested and handed over to the court and in the Hague where they belong.
The ICC in isolation is not a silver bullet—it needs the support of states. It’s the same thing for the situation in Libya, where after the referral of the Security Council, there has been little political capital expended by council members to ensure that the authorities would cooperate with court the way they should.
Now the ICC in some situations does not have jurisdiction, there is no political space for referral, so you have to adopt a case by case approach and look in which situation the court is appropriate and in which situations there are better options.
The preferred option is always for the national, the domestic authorities, to prosecute serious crimes and to do it to the highest standards. Sadly, it doesn’t happen often and so we need to look at other solutions. Hybrid tribunals, such as the one that’s being considered for South Sudan—maybe that’s the solution in some cases, but the proof will be in the pudding. We need to see these tribunals function effectively, and deliver on justice for the victims of these crimes.
Finally, is it possible for peace and justice to go hand-in-hand or will they always be in conflict?
I think the idea that you have to choose between peace and justice is in fact promoted by people who have an interest in justice taking a back seat. Impunity in any society is never good. The victims of crimes want justice, and when justice is denied it breeds resentment, it breeds conflict, it breeds further violations down the line. So I am convinced that both go hand-in-hand. Sacrificing justice in the name of peace is very short-sighted and doesn’t result in long-lasting peace.