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Jonathan Power: War crimes punishment on a roll

It’s all coming along very nicely—the recent efforts to arrest war criminals and the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Who would have thought during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, or in the midst of the dark days of the Rwandan genocide that the hand of international justice would be reaching out to arrest the patrons of criminal activity, trying and imprisoning them? At some point, we may even see the architects of torture in the recent U.S. administration of George W. Bush investigated. Global recognition of the importance of international criminal justice has been marred by fits and starts throughout most of the twentieth century, gaining momentum only recently. After the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials in 1945 and 1946, there was a hiatus in the pursuit of international justice--a lapse that was finally broken when, in 1975, most of the world signed the Convention Against Torture. Twenty years later, the world community went even further, crafting the Convention Against War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in June 1998. More commonly known as the Rome Statute, the Convention Against War Crimes is indeed a momentous document, the first of its kind to take as its mission the need to “to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators” of the world’s most serious crimes, “and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes.” The aftershocks of this latest convention were immediately felt by the world’s worst dictators, its principles being invoked by domestic courts throughout the world. A few months after the Rome convention, for example, Scotland Yard arrested the former dictator of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet, in London. After long court hearings, for the first time anywhere a high court declared that sovereign immunity must not be allowed to become sovereign impunity. Alas, he was released on humanitarian grounds two years later, and died of a heart attack in 2006 without ever being brought to justice. Since that time, the ball has only rolled with gathering speed. Just last month, a London judge issued an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni, the former prime minister of Israel and a current leader in the Knesset. She was indicted for her role in last year’s Operation Cast Lead, which authorized the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. Ms Livni avoided arrest by cancelling a pending trip to Britain. The British government was embarrassed, but could do nothing.

THE INDEX -- January 4, 2010

THE INDEX -- December 31, 2009

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