The unstoppable pursuit of crimes against humanity

By Jonathan Power

Good riddance! I wonder what their Maker will conclude? Last week saw the death of one of the world’s worst practitioners of crimes against humanity – Jorge Rafael Videla, aged 87, the former military dictator of Argentina. He died while serving a life sentence.

Last week also saw the conviction of Guatemala’s former head of state, Efrain Rios Montt, aged 86, for genocide – the mass murder of the country’s indigenous people. This was the first time, anywhere in the world, that a former head of state has been put on trial for genocide by a national tribunal in his own country. Regrettably, yesterday, the constitutional court ordered a partial re-trial. His conviction is still likely.

The International Criminal Court, established to try those accused of carrying out crimes against humanity, may be moving too slowly but cumulatively over the last fifteen years there have been many trials (or pending trials) of accused from around the world, some under the auspices of the ICC itself, some under that of their country. This is a new thing. Only at Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War 2 when the Nazi and Japanese leadership were tried have we seen anything like it.

These present day trials have taken place in countries as varied as ex-Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Rwanda (held in Tanzania), Sierra Leone, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, the UK and, for the ICC, in Holland. (The Africans do not have a point when they complain that the ICC only prosecutes Africans. They should look at this broader picture.)

Guatemala may be the worst of all. I remember visiting Guatamala to write for the New York Times back in 1981. I asked Thomas Hammarberg, the head of Amnesty International, which country was the worst practitioner of human rights. “Guatemala”, he replied. I then asked him how many political prisoners there were on Amnesty’s books. “None”, he replied, “Only political killings”. The army took no prisoners.

Rios Montt’s regime was not the first to run an alleged murder machine. A number of his predecessors had also done so. In fact I traced the murders of the 1970s and 80s to the desk of President Lucas Garcia. There was also clear evidence that the US was supplying military training and CIA financial support for leaders of the government. My editorial page column had no effect on Guatemala’s regime and was shrugged off by the administration of President Ronald Reagan which saw Cuban-supported communists under every bed.

According to a dispatch in the New York Times last week by Elisabeth Malkin, “Embassy officials trekked up to the scene of massacres and reported back the army’s line that the guerrillas were doing the killing”. In 1999 the UN Truth Commission found Guatemalan security forces responsible for 90% of the human rights violations.

Only decades later did President Bill Clinton go to Guatamala and make a public declaration of US guilt. (President Barack Obama should do the same in Cambodia whose regime, the Khmer Rouge, killed two million of its own people. It was supported at the UN as the legitimate government by presidents Jimmy Carter and Reagan, along with the Europeans, except Sweden.)

The ex-president of Argentina, Jorge Videla, presided over part of the long military dictatorship which stretched from 1973 to 1986. Up to 30,000 people were killed in a campaign known as the “Dirty War”. In 1985 he was convicted of torture and murder. In 1990 he was pardoned by President Carlos Menem. In 2010 the Supreme Court upheld a 2007 federal court decision to overturn his pardon. Last year in another trial he was convicted of overseeing the systematic theft of around 400 babies from political prisoners.

Jorge Miguel Vivanco, director for Latin America of Human Rights Watch, said recently that Videla “was arrogant to the end and unwilling to acknowledge his responsibility for the massive atrocities.”

Do these trials and convictions, whether nationally or internationally conducted, have any effect on deterring future would-be war criminals? Nobody for sure knows. One can surmise that the military junta that ruled Burma for decades decided on its recent political liberalisation partly because of the fear of ICC prosecution.

It’s also fairly clear that the recent general election in Kenya that was won by Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been charged by the ICC for crimes against humanity, was conducted peacefully, unlike the last murderous one, because of the Sword of Damocles hanging over him. Moreover, there may be others who decided or will decide to pull back after wanting to torture and murder in pursuit of their political ambitions, because they fear ICC punishment.

The ICC has already proved that it has a long arm. May it be long enough. May it win the battle against crimes against humanity.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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