NEW YORK – At its recent summit meeting in Equatorial Guinea, the African Union formalized its decision to expand the jurisdiction of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights to include international crimes, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. On a continent where populations have suffered extensively from such crimes, the AU’s move might at first seem like an important step toward increasing accountability. But, as the accompanying amendment to grant immunity from prosecution to sitting heads of state and senior officials clearly demonstrates, it is actually a transparent effort to let guilty parties off scot-free.
Since the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993, international criminal justice has come a long way. Indeed, despite intense scrutiny and agonizingly slow trials, several more special tribunals have been established to hold individuals accountable for large-scale crimes committed in countries like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and Lebanon. Moreover, the ICTY was instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, which has acted on crimes committed in several more countries.
These courts have held hundreds of important trials, almost all them involving the prosecution of guerrilla leaders and high-level officials – including heads of state – who had played a major role in large-scale atrocities. The first head of state tried by an international court was former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, who was accused of overseeing the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs. Though he died in custody before the trial was completed, his case was a landmark moment in the development of international criminal law.
Since then, international courts have had some major successes. Jean Kambanda, the prime minister of the caretaker government during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, is now serving a life sentence. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence for aiding and abetting crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war from 1996 to 2002.