Experts Discuss the Impact of Politics on National War Crimes Prosecutions

As the era of international ad hoc tribunals draws to a close, it is becoming clear that those responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes should be prosecuted by countries where they were committed. The International Criminal Court is increasingly accepted as a last resort, an institution which should exercise its jurisdiction only where states are unwilling or genuinely unable to do so.

However, the reality of most post-conflict societies, ravaged by war or repression, is one of devastated institutions and often fragile democracy, where significant reforms are needed to enable judiciaries to take on such complex and sensitive cases.

International efforts to identify the primary needs of countries which are facing the task of prosecuting serious crimes have identified two key elements: technical capacity and political will.

While initiatives are under way to gather international development actors around the need to support capacity of national institutions through technical and material assistance, the issue of political will seems to be more complex. Judges and prosecutors often find themselves working on cases of serious crimes in extremely polarized political atmosphere; governments sometimes support such processes only declaratively; and international actors can significantly influence national processes through donor strategies and political interference.

ICTJ partnered with the Center for Global Affairs at NYU to explore how political will of international and national actors impacts national war crimes proceedings. The panel, held on Tuesday, December 4, 2012, examined four diverse country scenario scenarios - the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Serbia, Iraq, and Guatemala.Panelists include Stephen J. Rapp, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice; Paul Seils, Vice President and General Counsel of ICTJ; Jennifer Trahan, Assistant Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at the NYU; and Djordje Djordjevic, Rule of Law, Justice and Security Adviser at UNDP. The event was moderated by the president of ICTJ David Tolbert.

Watch the panel:

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Speaker Biographies

Djordje Djordjevic is a Rule of Law, Justice and Security advisor with the UNDP Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery in New York. He supports UNDP’s technical engagement UN system-wide rule of law issues including through the Rule of Law Coordination and Resource Group and previously in the Security Sector Reform Task Force. Apart from policy work, he also provides assistance to UNDP Country Offices in crisis situation to design and implement comprehensive rule of law programs including in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, occupied Palestinian territory, Timor Leste and Uganda. Djordje is also a focal point for the organization on transitional justice policy and programming issues. More recently this includes engagement with international partners on strengthening complementarity at the national level, and promoting broader interface between reparation policies and development programs.

Stephen J. Rapp of Iowa is Ambassador-at-Large, heading the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the U.S. Department of State. He was appointed by President Obama, confirmed by the Senate, and assumed his duties on September 8, 2009. Prior to his appointment, Ambassador Rapp served as Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone beginning in January 2007, responsible for leading the prosecutions of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and other persons alleged to bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone. During his tenure in Sierra Leone, his office won the first convictions in history for recruitment and use of child soldiers and for sexual slavery and forced marriage as crimes under international humanitarian law. From 2001 to 2007, Mr. Rapp served as Senior Trial Attorney and Chief of Prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, personally heading the trial team that achieved convictions of the principals of RTLM radio and Kangura newspaper—the first in history for leaders of the mass media for the crime of direct and public incitement to commit genocide.

Paul Seils began his professional career as a criminal defense lawyer in Scotland in 1991. From 1997 he spent nearly five years in Guatemala as legal director of one the country’s main NGOs, designing and directing investigations on behalf of victims into massacres committed by the military during the civil war. He has held senior positions in the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC, in the Rule of Law section of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and at the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). He has written widely on theory and practice in transitional justice, particularly on the importance of national prosecutions and complementarity, challenges in investigating mass crimes in transitional contexts, and on mapping and selection issues.

David Tolbert was appointed president of the International Center for Transitional Justice in March of 2010. Previously he served as registrar (assistant secretary-general) of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and prior to that was assistant secretary-general and special expert to the United Nations secretary-general on United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials. From 2004 to 2008 Mr. Tolbert served as deputy chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). From 2000 to 2003 Mr. Tolbert held the position of executive director of the American Bar Association’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, which manages rule-of-law development programs throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. David Tolbert was Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and served as a member of the American Society of International Law Task Force on United States Policy Toward the International Criminal Court (ICC) during 2008 and 2009.

Jennifer Trahan is Assistant Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at NYU. She teaches International Law; Human Rights; International Criminal Tribunals & Their Law; Transitional Justice; and U.S. Use of Force & the “Global War on Terror.” She has served as counsel and of counsel to the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch; served as Iraq Prosecutions Consultant to the International Center of Transitional Justice; and consulted on cases before the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She is the author of “Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity: A Digest of the Case Law of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda” (HRW 2010), and “Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity: A Topical Digest of the Case Law of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.” (HRW 2006).


Photo: A woman in Belgrade watches 02 June 2005 a video film on television apparently showing Serbian paramilitaries executing six Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica. Two years later, four members of the notorious Serb paramilitary unit were convicted of war crimes by the Belgrade District Court. AFP PHOTO, KOCA SULEJMANOVIC/AFP/Getty Images