Needed: a Permanent War-Crimes Tribunal

Rwanda is reteaching the lessons of Nazi atrocity: that the rule of law, not revenge, will govern

It's sometimes said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today in Central Africa that expression is becoming a tragic reality.

More than two years ago, the tiny African nation of Rwanda was torn asunder by ethnic hatred. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered, millions of civilians were forced to flee, chaotic refugee camps were established, and the entire region was dangerously destabilized.

Today, while the genocidal impulses of 1994 have dissipated, ethnic hatred and regional instability still simmers. And while we can be thankful that many of the refugees are returning to Rwanda, the question of reconciliation and rebuilding must now become paramount.

The persistent instability in Central Africa is due in no small part to the abiding ethnic tensions in Rwanda's neighbors: Burundi and, of course, Zaire. However, equally important is the question of judicial response to the genocide of 1994.

For the many Hutus who are guilty of crimes against humanity and for the Tutsis, who bore the brunt of the genocidal frenzy, justice remains unfulfilled. While the international community established a tribunal to prosecute war criminals, the court remains undermanned, underfunded, and seemingly incapable of providing the necessary closure for Rwanda's national nightmare. Only this past September did the tribunal bring its first defendant to trial - nearly 2 years after the killing.

Ad hoc international justice

Part of the problem is that significant numbers of the Hutu population were involved in the killings - from the defense minister down to local officials and ordinary citizens. But a larger, general problem is the continuing, ad hoc nature of international justice, particularly when dealing with crimes against humanity.

The tribunals in Rwanda and Bosnia provide even greater evidence that, 50 years after the Nuremberg trials to prosecute Nazi war criminals, the world community must finally establish a permanent international tribunal to bring war criminals to justice.

Creating a permanent tribunal will establish a lasting framework for prosecuting war criminals - replacing the largely ad hoc and underfunded efforts that we've seen in Bosnia and Rwanda. Additionally, it would send a clear signal to tyrants and murderers that they will ultimately be held accountable.

Some may scoff at the notion that international tribunals can deter future genocides. But let us not forget that the Hutu conspirators in Rwanda took inspiration from the failure of the international community to act after similar ethnic massacres in Burundi - in much the same way that Hitler took encouragement from the world's tepid response to the Armenian genocide in 1915.

In 1993, 50,000 ethnic Hutu and Tutsi were savagely murdered in Burundi while the international community did nothing. The result was an emboldened Hutu majority in Rwanda, with little fear of punishment from the international community.

In Rwanda, those intent on punishing the guilty are finding that it is an almost herculean task - similar to the experience of my father, Sen. Thomas J. Dodd, and others who faced the difficult job of virtually creating new legal precedents in international law to prosecute Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg 50 years ago.

A brake on reconciliation

In both Bosnia and Rwanda, the need to find prosecutors and judges, build new courtrooms, and marshall resources will delay justice. What's more, failure to quickly prosecute those accused of war crimes slows the process of reconciliation.

War crimes tribunals are essential for silencing the voices of retribution and revenge and removing the burden of collective guilt from entire communities. Not all Serbs or Croats or Hutus are guilty of war crimes. The vast majority seek only to enjoy "the quiet miracle of life."

But no process of reconciliation can begin if justice is not delivered to those who are guilty, and, in turn, exoneration to those who are innocent. The need for such reconciliation in Rwanda becomes even more important now that so many of the Hutu refugees are returning to their homeland.

Along with the many innocent refugees are perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Failure to bring those murderers to justice will cast a perception of guilt on much of the returning Hutu population.

A permanent tribunal would swiftly and fairly punish the guilty, while allowing the vast majority of innocent Hutus and Tutsis to work together with their neighbors in beginning the difficult, painstaking process of national reconciliation.

Obviously, a permanent tribunal is by no means a panacea. There are still important jurisdictional, enforcement, and legal issues that must be resolved before a permanent tribunal can be established. Additionally, as we've seen in Bosnia and Rwanda, simply bringing the accused to trial creates it's own range of political and military complications.

Nonetheless, the creation of a permanent tribunal would be an important first step on the road to making crimes against humanity issues of immediate international concern and jurisprudence. What's more, it would serve as a singular statement of purpose and allegiance to the international rule of law.

Many people forget that 50 years ago, after the ghastly atrocities of Auschwitz and Dachau were revealed to the world, there were far more calls for immediate retribution than for legal remedy.

Justice silences revenge

Considering the heinous crimes of the Nazis, these appeals for vengeance were understandable. But at Nuremberg the deafening cries for revenge were silenced by the rule of law. At Nuremberg we saw a triumph of our ideals, a triumph of the belief that justice must prevail over barbarism. Today, we must continue that legacy.

By creating an international tribunal we will make clear that as civilized people we will not tolerate such actions. Furthermore, a permanent tribunal will demonstrate that we will do everything in our power to make clear to the world's would-be war criminals that such atrocities are never acceptable.

*US Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) of Connecticut is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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