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March 30, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 14

Open Society Institute President Aryeh Neier speaks with Diane Orentlicher, a professor of law at American University, prior to the start of a panel discussion, "The Function and Limits of the Tribunals," that took place during the March 24 Law School symposium on war crimes tribunals. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

War Crimes and Legal Tradition

Law School forum looks at challenges facing international tribunals

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

More than a dozen experts in international human rights law gathered March 24 at Boston College Law School to examine the challenges faced by international war tribunals in an increasingly interconnected world that nonetheless comprises a broad mix of legal traditions.

The symposium, titled "Sharpening the Cutting Edge of International Human Rights Law: Unresolved Issues of War Crimes Tribunals," was hosted by the Boston College International & Comparative Law Review and the Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice.

The event took place amid renewed public debate about the efficiency of international war crimes tribunals. The discussion flared up this month after former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in a United Nations prison in the Netherlands while awaiting the outcome of his trial on charges he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Bosnians and Croatians during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

Some observers have used Milosevic's death, which came nearly five years after he was imprisoned, as an illustration of the failures of UN-dispensed justice.

"That more than four and a half years wasn't long enough to present and try a case against one of the most notorious war criminals in recent history is a testament to the flaws in the United Nations' administration of justice," The New York Sun editorialized on March 13, noting that it took less than a year to try, convict and execute the top 10 Nazi defendants after World War II.

"Milosevic's trial took so long that not only did the defendant die before it concluded, so did one of the judges," The Sun said.

But several participants at the BC symposium argued that while international war crimes tribunals do face numerous operational, political and legal challenges, their benefits nonetheless outweigh their costs.

Among the panelists who highlighted the good that can come of such tribunals was University Trustee Pierre-Richard Prosper '85, the former ambassador at large for war crimes at the US Department of State.

Describing his experience as a war crimes prosecutor at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Prosper addressed the somewhat improvisational nature of the international war crime justice system and said it stemmed both from the unique nature of each conflict and from the varying legal traditions among participants.

"We made it up as we went along. We really did," Prosper said of his experiences in Rwanda.

Several speakers noted that the justice system for international war crimes is still in its infancy and that growing pains are to be expected. Panelist Patricia Wald, the former chief judge of the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, said newer tribunals are incorporating the lessons learned at earlier ones.

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