International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2016 Issue

Hague Happenings


Efforts to Fight Impunity Globally: A Talk With Stephen Rapp

Iva Vukusic
By: Iva Vukusic, International Judicial Monitor Correspondent in The Hague

(After serving as Ambassador-at-Large heading the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the U.S. State Department for six years, Stephen Rapp will now spend the next few months in The Hague, at the Institute for Global Justice. The residence is part of his new position at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. Rapp’s arrival in The Hague was an opportunity to discuss some contemporary challenges to accountability for atrocity crimes.)   

Stephen Rapp spent years at the forefront of efforts to end impunity for the most heinous crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In his position as Ambassador-at-Large, he spearheaded efforts of the U.S. government to support international criminal tribunals, hybrid courts and the International Criminal Court (ICC) as well as spent much time traveling, meeting with victims of mass atrocities. Rapp was engaging with governments, international institutions and civil society with the aim of bringing accountability to some of the most conflict-ridden places. As former prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), he knows first-hand about the challenges faced in efforts to prosecute suspects, in particular those in high positions. Most recently, his work has turned to the development of practices to improve judicial processes, investigative commissions and documentation projects.   

Rapp will spend his next few months working on a project with the aim of improving the coordination between human rights fact-finding in cases of mass atrocity and criminal accountability efforts, both domestically and internationally. When it comes to using any information the fact-finding missions gathered in criminal proceedings, Rapp notes, “it’s very difficult” and gathering documents or forensic analysis of mass graves is not something commissions of inquiry regularly engage in. In the criminal justice field, notes Rapp, we learned from experience, that human memory is frail, and that we need physical evidence. Furthermore, “there is a proliferation of civil society and non-governmental groups that are engaged in documentation”, some more closely tied to victims, some more independent, such as the Human Rights Watch and more recently, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) which received its funding largely from governments. The aim of the project is thus to figure out the best use and sharing of relevant information and the outcome, ideally, will be a “set of guidelines on how to approach different situations, which could be broadly accepted and standardized” and come up with a set of best practices.   

An important part of Rapp’s work relates to Syria and achieving a measure of justice for the atrocities committed during the now five-year long civil war. It is very frustrating, admits Rapp, speaking to the victims of the Syrian conflict, be it those of the predominant crimes committed by the regime, or those by so-called Islamic State or a myriad of other groups. As they “don’t see any prospect for accountability”, those involved in documentation sometimes wonder if it’s all for nothing, given that so far, prosecutions of high-ranking officials have been beyond reach. From the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda, Guatemala, Cambodia or Chad, arrests and prosecution of those most responsible are rarely possible before the conflict or the dictatorship ends and some form of transition begins.  

The discussions on justice options for Syria have often included disputes between those that believe the ICC should step in, through a Security Council referral (something that failed due to the veto of Russia and China) and those that champion the idea that a separate, internationalized tribunal should be established. The former group doesn’t want to jeopardize the drive to make the ICC universal, while the latter stresses that the ICC cannot possibly deal


with the burden of prosecuting crimes in Syria, given their gravity and prevalence and its own limited resources. Reservations towards the suitability of the ICC come from the fact that it “may not be able to do everything that needs to be done”. So far, the pattern at the International Criminal Court has been to indict a small number of accused from a given situation. That, for Syria, may be far from sufficient. “Whatever process beings for Syria in the future, it is important to make sure it is sufficiently independent and not some form of victor’s justice”, stresses Rapp. That is why he supports some internationalization of the process. The required diplomatic effort may be aided by the recent labeling of crimes of so-called Islamic state fighters against minorities ‘genocide’ by the American administration and before that, the European Parliament.

What is crucial is that “the process is broadly representative of the Syrian population”, and in order to ensure independence, there should be “international participation”, possibly along the lines of what we have seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past decade where domestic and international judges worked together. As time passed and the judiciary became more stable, the number of foreigners decreased. The process is imperfect but it has been judged by independent observes as credible and largely successful. That sort of cooperation between international and domestic efforts and staff is what is desirable. It is simply unlikely that the institutions of a future Syria will be soon capable of conducting independent prosecutions for high-level accused. The expertise, the resources and the political independence may take time to build. At this stage it is important not to forget accountability efforts at the negotiating table. It is also crucial to be open about the limits of what justice efforts can do. Sadly, the number of potential suspects is likely too high to ever lead to the prosecution of everyone, or even most. Outreach will be crucial and the ability of the institution to communicate clearly with the public it is supposed to serve, and survivors in particular, Rapp notes. Other mechanisms will be needed, including truth commissions and other ways through which people can repair their lives.

One of the significant new developments in addressing impunity in Syria has been the establishment of CIJA, the group investigating perpetrators and analyzing seized documents, establishing databases of potential suspects and developing trial-ready files for senior officials of the Syrian regime. All that work is done with the hope that one day a possibility of a judicial process appears and that then investigations won’t have to start from scratch.  What is important to remember is that “political circumstances change” and those that commit the most brutal crimes and now have allies to protect them from prosecution and extradition, may not be so lucky in the future.  In any effort, Syrian voices must be heard and included in a meaningful way.

All this work relates to the main goal which is to “strengthen the international system” of justice and accountability for atrocity crimes. Rapp responds to sceptics that are saying that there is no system of justice, but only a few cases, here and there, in The Hague, by stating it’s a work in progress. The former Ambassador agrees that, at this stage, it’s little more than a patchwork of institutions, and many gaps remain. “What we want”, according to Rapp, is a “perception that if you commit those crimes, there will be consequences”, all with the aim to protect people in future conflicts. We shouldn’t forget, “we’ve done enormous things in twenty years”, since the establishment of the ICTY and ICTR, and that progress should continue. “There are efforts at the national level that continue to impress”, states Rapp. As discouraging as the situation may be when we look at places like Syria or Iraq, there is progress and there is hope, as long as justice is something committed individuals work for. The paradigm has changed – justice is being demanded in every contemporary conflict. That progress is not easily undone, even when faced with the harshest opposition and inaction. The hard work towards the universality of norms must continue, while accepting that progress is slow, but may well be coming.   

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2016 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
IJM welcomes comments, suggestions, and submissions.
Please contact the IJM editor at