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The cost of peace

WASHINGTON, DC ó There are times when it seems that Carla del Ponte is more jet-setter than prosecutor. Last week, the lead prosecutor for the UN International Criminal Tribunals for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) was in Washington, drumming up US support for her efforts to bring war criminals to justice. By Monday, she was in Belgrade, badgering the newly cleansed government there to turn over indicted criminals such as General Ratko Mladic (the Bosnian Serb architect of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre).

During her visit to Washington, however, del Ponte found time to participate in a forum organized by the Swiss Foundation for World Affairs called " Seeking Justice for Iraq: Who Will Shuffle the Deck of Cards? " The event also featured Ruth Wedgwood, a Defense Policy Board member and director of the International Law and Organization Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and David Scheffer, Clinton-administration at-large ambassador for war crimes. The result was a vigorous discussion that focused on the difficulties the US will undoubtedly face as it attempts to administer justice in an occupied Iraq (see " Trial by Errors, " News and Features, February 27).

Del Ponteís remarks seemed calculated not to make news, which isnít surprising. When much of your job involves keeping the United States committed to trying the horrific war crimes of Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, weighing in on how the Bush administration should handle Iraq isnít very politic. (And, given the White Houseís penchant for retribution against " Old Europe, " probably not very smart either.) Yet the former Swiss attorney general did reaffirm some core principles of international justice, urging an approach that would " bring justice as close as possible to the people concerned " while seeing to it that those same citizens view the process as " legitimate " and " impartial. "

But the true intellectual jousting took place between Wedgwood and Scheffer, whose thoughts on the question of international justice paralleled the polarized approaches taken by the present White House and the Clinton administration. Because the newly formed International Criminal Court is disqualified from tackling Iraq (neither Iraq nor the US ratified the treaty that authorizes the court, and many of the crimes committed in Iraq occurred prior to the establishment of the ICCís mandate in July 2002), there are limited viable options for trying Iraqi war criminals.

Wedgwood argued strongly against the UNís playing a role in the trials via the establishment of a new ad hoc tribunal such as those in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The UN Security Council, she noted, seems ill prepared to shoulder the costs of a new tribunal. Wedgwood also argued that such a tribunal would frustrate the " debriefing " of Iraqi officials ó and thus the finding of weapons of mass destruction. She proposed a " mixed " tribunal of Iraqis and members of the " coalition of the willing " that invaded Iraq as the best solution.

Scheffer, on the other hand, strongly urged the formation of a new ad hoc tribunal to try top Iraqi leaders, with mixed lower courts to try lesser offenders and traditional military tribunals to deal with crimes of warfare (such as attacks under flags of truce). As a " collapsed society, " noted Scheffer, Iraq would be hard-pressed to provide skilled and impartial jurists to fill the slots on a " mixed " court for top officials. The involvement of the UN, he argued, would also have the advantage of relieving some of the USís responsibility for strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions that govern occupying powers. Preventing the looting already seen in Iraq, he continued, falls under those laws governing occupation ó and the US must take its own possible violations of international law into account.

Del Ponte did strike one provocative note in her brief response to discussion of the immense costs of trying war crimes. She noted that the UN recently authorized a " mixed " tribunal in Sierra Leone primarily because it was unwilling to bear the costs of a new ad hoc tribunal ó even as it felt strongly that the price tag was the wrong reason to authorize such an approach. " Justice is not cheap, " said del Ponte.

Whatever approach is finally taken for trials in Iraq, there will be substantial costs. The open question seems to be whether those costs (and moral burdens) will be shouldered by the US alone ó as they were in the invasion of Iraq ó or whether bringing justice to Iraq will be a truly international effort.

Issue Date: May 23 - 29, 2003
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