Justice without frontiers | 1 September 1995
As civilians are bombed in Sarajevo and threats of genocide are repeated in Burundi we feel powerless to stop crimes against humanity that are being carried out with impunity.
When perpetrators of these horrific acts are not brought to justice they receive a clear message that they can get away with further crimes without the international community taking effective action.
In fact, blatant violations of international law have led the United Nations to set up two ad hoc tribunals - on Rwanda and on Yugoslavia in November 1994 and February 1993 respectively. Although the tribunal on Yugoslavia has indicted over 20 people, both it and the Rwanda tribunal are hampered by a lack of resources and of political support from individual countries and from the UN.
In June this year five judges were sworn in to hear the Rwanda cases but will only work part time. Therefore there will most likely be delays in the international supervision of the pre-trial detention of over 43,000 suspects currently in custody in Rwanda. On the second anniversary of the establishment of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, only eight out of the UN's 185 member states have adopted laws enabling their authorities to cooperate with the tribunals, for instance by handing over suspects to the court for trial. Both tribunals are hampered by financial restraints.
International lawyers as well as human rights groups such as Amnesty International have therefore been working for a permanent international criminal court with power to try people accused of gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law, wherever the crimes are committed. As long ago as 1950, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, the International Law Commission, a group of legal experts appointed to advise the UN, reported that such a court was desirable. This September the next session of the UN will decide whether to proceed with setting up an international criminal court.
An international, independent criminal court would complement prosecutions in national courts, for example the war crimes trials at present being considered in the UK. It would bring to justice those accused of the most heinous crimes, in proceedings which guarantee all the internationally recognised safeguards for fair trials adopted by the international community over the past half century. As lawyers we can be involved as a profession in ensuring that those committing these crimes can be brought to justice and will no longer be able to act with impunity. We expect that there will be wide support among lawyers for the setting up of the new international criminal court.