The new US point man on war crimes: Stephen Rapp

New war crimes ambassador Stephen Rapp exemplifies Obama's deeper engagement on international law. His résumé includes prosecution of those who promoted genocide in Rwanda.

Reuters/United photos
Experience: The résumé of Stephen Rapp, the new US ambassador for war crimes, includes prosecution of those who promoted genocide in Rwanda.

New US ambassador for war crimes Stephen Rapp knows firsthand what it takes to prosecute man's inhumanity to man. The former Iowa district attorney has already prosecuted participants in the Rwanda genocide and former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor.

The United States is much criticized abroad for its attitude toward international justice and world courts. The charge in Europe and Africa is that the US wants universal law for others but not for itself.

But in Mr. Rapp, who took up his duties Sept. 8, President Obama has found someone who international justice advocates expect will deepen US engagement in crimes against humanity cases.

For instance, Rapp favors an International Crim­­inal Court (ICC) investigation of Kenya's 2007-08 postelection violence and wants an investigation into September's soccer stadium killings and rape in Guinea. "Mass crimes against humanity are not acceptable ... and the US will be more engaged," Rapp told a conference of jurists in Madrid earlier this month.

"[Rapp] comes to the job with experience in international criminal justice," says Stuart Alford, a London barrister and chair of the War Crimes Committee of the International Bar Association. "He understands the difficulties of putting on trial men like Charles Taylor. He knows the security issues involved, and the reconciliation issues within the region, including Liberia. To have someone from the US with that kind of background is encouraging."

From Iowa to Rwanda

Rapp is known to have "prosecutorial zeal." Four days after being tapped to take charge of the Rwanda tribunal in 2005, "I was on the plane to Kigali," he said in a Monitor interview. Rapp brought his whole family from Iowa­ and says he wants to spend his life "bringing justice to places that have never had it before."

Rapp, who traveled to Africa in a small Beechcraft airplane that often packed lawyers and defendants together, has prosecuted cases centered on violence against women, child soldier recruitment, and the use of the media to create and direct genocide.

In Rwanda, he prosecuted the "media case," mainly against radio station RTLM, which infamously implored Hutus to kill the "cockroaches" or Tutsi minority in the 1994 genocide. The case took 34 months. The judges found that RTLM was not only a mass mechanism for inciting violence, but also a logistical tool for genocide – directing troops and reading the license tag numbers of Tutsi cars to machete-wielding men waiting at checkpoints.

It was Rapp's first case. Bringing order to an emotional trial based in Tanzania "was the most difficult thing I've ever done," Rapp recalls. "When I arrived there were no real exhibits – we had 273 tapes of broadcasts ... but no one knew where the tapes came from. When I got there, only 50 were translated, some in French, some in English – and this was the seventh month of the trial!" His family was a support; his wife is an African-history scholar. But it was an adjustment, moving from Iowa to prosecute "the intentional mur­der of 800,000 people in a hundred days."

US participation in ICC not likely 'anytime soon'

Now Rapp, as head of the US State Department Office of War Crimes Issues, will need to find his way amid the courts of public and world opinion.

The US has not participated in the ICC, worried it will be used to take revenge on Americans, rather than to bring justice. But the US has come under withering criticism for the Bush administration's use of torture and legal justifications for it. The Obama team, meanwhile, is taking hits in the justice community for seeking to quash the UN human rights report on Israel's war in Gaza.

US credibility on justice will be tested, says Mr. Alford. "There are questions about the past eight years, and the international justice community is watching ... five years down the line. [If] the US has ignored its own issues ... the pressure will grow."

Rapp admitted that US participation on the world court is not likely "anytime soon," though jurists in Madrid predicted Rapp will find creative ways to cooperate with the ICC. Rapp also points out that "there's nothing in the law that prevents the US from dealing with Charles Taylor, with [former Yugoslavian President Slobodan] Milosevic, with heinous crimes."

Rapp says the world's view of the US, regarding international justice under President Bush, isn't entirely accurate. The Bush team supported trials for Rwanda and backed East Timor's domestic tribunals and the indictment of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir.

The US shouldn't fear the ICC, Rapp says. "If the people who were worried [when the US was one of seven nations not to support the ICC] would pay attention to what the court is actually doing, they would be relieved," he says. "The ICC just indicted Joseph Kony [head of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda]. Darfur is a case Americans feel strongly about. We want to send a signal that the US is prepared to exercise leadership."

It is in America's interest to engage in war crimes prosecutions, he argues, citing the postelection violence in Kenya: "The 2007 elections in Kenya shocked the world, and if we come to elections in 2012 and nothing is done, what message does that send? If the message is that you can get away with that kind of violence ... it could lead to a further conflagration. It is in the interest of the US to show this can't continue."

Whether Rapp can reverse the rap that the US has a double standard on international justice is the question overseas.•

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