3 Often Forgotten and Never-Ending Atrocities Tribunals

In just three years, eight months, and 21 days, from April 1975 to January 1979, the Khmer Rouge managed to kill more than a million Cambodians. From 1992 to 1995, about 100,000 people died during the Bosnian War. In the mere 100 days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, at least 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were ...

Photo by MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP/Getty Images

In just three years, eight months, and 21 days, from April 1975 to January 1979, the Khmer Rouge managed to kill more than a million Cambodians. From 1992 to 1995, about 100,000 people died during the Bosnian War. In the mere 100 days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, at least 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed.

So it’s bitter for survivors that the tribunals established to hold perpetrators of some of the darkest episodes of the 20th century accountable are nowhere near as efficient in administering justice as the killers were in doling out death.

Decades later, the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are still not wrapped up. Their proceedings have now outlived some elderly defendants. But there have been significant developments in all three U.N.-backed courts in the past few days.

This week, closing arguments began in the trial of 69-year-old Radovan Karadzic, one of the last defendants from the decade-long conflict in the former Yugoslavia to be tried in The Hague. On Monday, prosecutors argued that the former president of the Bosnian Serb Republic was the "driving force" behind the persecution of non-Serbs during the Bosnian War between Croats, Muslims, and Serbs. He’s charged, along with 72-year-old army chief Ratko Mladic, of spearheading an ethnic cleansing campaign that included the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys.

By then, the Yugoslav tribunal, known as the ICTY, was up and running, but its proceedings were stymied — first by the ongoing conflict and then by officials’ inability to locate many former leaders, including Karadzic and Mladic, who were in hiding. Karadzic wasn’t arrested until 2008; Mladic wasn’t tracked down until 2011. Prosecutors are now calling for life imprisonment for both of them.

Both men, in their own way, maintain their innocence, and Karadzic is expected to make a last defense for himself on Wednesday. A verdict for Karadzic isn’t expected until mid-2015, and not until 2016 in Mladic’s case. But the tribunal is generally winding down, having concluded proceedings for 141 of the 161 leaders it charged, including former Serbian and then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who died while on trial in 2006. Some lower-level cases were sent to national courts in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Also on Monday, the Rwandan tribunal’s appeals chamber in Arusha, Tanzania, ruled on some of its few remaining cases. The chamber upheld the convictions for genocide and most other charges for four former Rwandan officials, including Mathieu Ngirumpatse, 74, and Édouard Karemera, 63, the former chairman and secretary, respectively, of Rwanda’s National Republican Movement for Development, a main force behind the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Despite being established only months after the genocide ended, the Rwandan tribunal has dragged on — partly, as with the Yugoslavian panel, because many suspects were on the run for years. Ngirumpatse was arrested in Mali and Karemera in Togo in 1998.

Now, the tribunal has concluded proceedings against all 93 indicted leaders, though a few appeals decisions are pending. Nine of the accused remain at large, but the ICTR, as the panel is known, has transferred those cases to national courts or the United Nations’ "Residual Mechanism." This body, established by a 2010 U.N. Security Council resolution ordering the ICTR and ICTY to adjourn by the end of this year, will take on any remaining work. In compliance with the order, the ICTR plans to conclude all appeals this year, with one possible exception.

Meanwhile, between 2001 and 2012, community-level courts in Rwanda tried nearly 2 million lower-level suspects, drawing both praise for their national reconciliation efforts and criticism for potential miscarriages of justice and silencing of political opponents.

If it seems like justice has taken a long time to arrive in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, it’s nothing compared with Cambodia. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), also known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal, weren’t set up until 2006, more than a quarter-century after the regime’s dystopia of forced collectives and terror ended. The court didn’t hand down its first verdict until 2010, giving a 35-year prison sentence to the director of the notorious S-21 torture center.

As its unwieldy name suggests, the ECCC, unlike the ICTR and ICTY, operates domestically. It’s "extraordinary," in theory, because of its support from the United Nations. But in reality, corruption and political interference by former Khmer Rouge members who now lead Cambodia’s ruling party have slowed an already sluggish process and created chronic funding shortages.

By the time of the tribunal’s second-ever verdict in August, only two of the four leaders initially on trial in the case were around for it: the Khmer Rouge’s second in command, Nuon Chea, 88, and the regime’s head of state, Khieu Samphan, 83. The third defendant died before the nearly three-year trial ended, and the fourth was released because she has dementia. Last week, the court announced it will finally begin a second trial against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan on Oct. 17, on a new set of charges, including genocide. But it’s unclear how long funding, the aging defendants, and political support for the trial will last.

All three tribunals are arguably holdovers from a period of excessive optimism about the post-Cold War U.N.’s ability to fix things. Now some people are glad to see at least "some measure of justice" delivered. For others, it’s "too little, too late."

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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