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In recent decades it was almost unimaginable that those accused of perpetrating war crimes would be brought to trial. International law and justice was, practically speaking, of little or no concern for those whose designs led them to numerous and often brutal transgressions.
The case of Pol Pot is a prime example. The erstwhile Cambodian despot attempted to reengineer the Cambodian populace into an agrarian collective and his means included the torture and murder of untold numbers of opponents and intellectuals. With no viable court able to take jurisdiction in his case, Pol Pot had little reason to reconsider his plans. Even after he was captured, the absence of a judicial process left the survivors of his reign, and Cambodian society as a whole, bereft of the formal closure his conviction and punishment would have afforded.
It is thus heartening to see the progress the international community has made in recent years in filling this void. The prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, while not coming to a verdict before Milosevic's death, in effect put modern dictators on notice that they could not act with impunity.
Further positive strides were made with the capture and bringing to trial of Iraqi ex-president Saddam Hussein. In addition to the ongoing legal proceedings focusing on his involvement in the execution of 148 Shi'ites in an Iraqi village in 1982, officials in Iraq on Tuesday announced new charges against Saddam and six others, accusing them of genocide and crimes against humanity stemming from the gassing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s.
And in Sierra Leone, Liberian leader Charles Taylor, one of several notorious African warlords, is now facing 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in that country's 1991-2002 civil war in which 50,000 people lost their lives. Taylor pled not guilty before the UN-backed tribunal in Freetown on Monday.
These are especially welcome developments for Israelis who have recently come to regard the mention of charges of war crimes with justifiable suspicion. Last September Maj-Gen. (Res.) Doron Almog was forced to abandon a visit to London to evade arrest on such charges in connection with his service as head of the army's Southern Command from 2000 to 2003. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon have also been the subject of similar accusations.
Thus, it is encouraging to see international law being applied as it should be - when there actually are reasonable grounds on which to prosecute suspects - rather than seeing it manipulated as in the unwarranted hounding of Israeli officers in a double-standards witch-hunt.
Beyond the moral imperative to bring Milosevic, Saddam and Taylor to justice, and for each to bear the consequences of his actions, there is the equally essential element of deterrence. Taylor himself noted this effect, in the aftermath of the indictment against him in 2003, saying, "[This] sets an unhealthy precedent. Tomorrow it could be [other African leaders] Museveni, Kagame, Mugabe, Gbagbo."
Precisely. The fact that some alleged war criminals are facing internationally sanctioned legal action might just temper the actions of other dictators and warlords.
However, the Taylor case introduced a new wrinkle this week. Fearing that keeping him in Sierra Leone could lead to unrest among his supporters there and in neighboring countries, the local court has asked the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague to hear the remainder of the case. Such a move underscores a basic dilemma in international law.
On the one hand there is the desire to give victims or their families access to local proceedings, and the society where the crimes took place the satisfaction of participating in the serving of justice. On the other hand, places like Sierra Leone, Iraq or Cambodia - in the wake of tyrannical rulers or warlords - may not be stable enough to see justice done. In fact it was Cambodians' fear of eroding the status quo, post-Pol Pot, which led them to eschew legal action against him and his henchmen. In addition, local courts may not have the resources necessary, while the court in The Hague has both the infrastructure and experience for prosecuting such cases.
Ultimately, the goal is to see justice served in the broadest sense possible, and that means balancing the benefits and strains of a local process versus a trial in a neutral setting. If local officials feel a war crimes trial could destabilize society then, as in the case of Taylor, the trial should be held elsewhere. Doing so will not change the evidence but should result in justice being done, and being seen to be done.