In response to:

A Glimmer of Justice from the March 8, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

Aryeh Neier’s “A Glimmer of Justice” [NYR, March 8] about the International Criminal Court contains a number of errors stemming from a regrettable but unfortunately all too common misunderstanding of the post–cold war history of Africa’s Great Lakes region. Neier writes:

By and large, international tribunals focusing on particular countries have functioned well. The courts established for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have conducted several scores of fair trials that led to the conviction and punishment of many political and military leaders with the greatest level of responsibility for the most severe crimes committed in those countries.

This is certainly not true of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Many books and articles describe in detail how the ICTR failed to prosecute a single member of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), despite substantial evidence of crimes against humanity committed during the genocide, including massacres of innocent civilians and the downing of the presidential plane.1 Chief ICTR prosecutor Carla Del Ponte describes in her memoir being removed from the tribunal shortly after refusing US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Pierre Prosper’s request that she stop investigating RPF crimes.2

Neier notes that after the ICC was launched in 2002, other countries withdrew their troops from war-torn Congo. “This did not end the conflict in the DRC, which was maintained by local militias,” he continues, but then neglects to mention that some of the most brutal of those “local” militias were actually supported by Rwanda and Uganda, which have also continued to loot Congo’s natural resources with impunity.3

Scholars and journalists have also documented atrocities committed by Uganda’s army in northern Uganda that are comparable to or worse than those of Joseph Kony.4 The ICC turned a blind eye to this, as well as the murderous 2016 army raid on the Rwnenzuru traditional palace in western Uganda that killed least 150 unarmed people, including fifteen children.5

Only the ICC prosecutors know why they have not prosecuted high-level Rwandans or Ugandans, but it may have something to do with the security relationship the leaders of these countries have with the West.6

Helen Epstein
New York City

Aryeh Neier replies:

Helen Epstein criticizes my assertion that “by and large, tribunals focusing on particular countries have functioned well” by pointing out that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda failed to prosecute members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. She leaves out the sentence that directly follows the passage from my article that she quotes. It says: “The court for the former Yugoslavia has a particularly admirable record because its prosecutions and convictions have dealt with crimes committed by all parties involved in the conflicts in that region.” If Epstein had also quoted that sentence, it would have indicated that I consider the record of other tribunals less admirable for not prosecuting those on all sides.

Epstein also says that I failed to mention that the local militias that continued to commit abuses in the Congo after their governments withdrew their forces were supported by those same governments. She is right about this. I went into this in my 2012 book, The International Human Rights Movement: A History. I wrote there:

Conflict continued between local warlords who had been allied with the invading armies, and forces still supported by the Rwandan government and, perhaps, by other governments that had intervened directly in the Congo, [but] there was some reduction in the overall level of suffering and in the despoliation of the country.

Perhaps I should have extended this portion of my article, which was somewhat peripheral to its main argument, by adding such a passage.

Epstein also mentions other atrocities and says that “only the ICC prosecutors know why they have not prosecuted high-level Rwandans or Ugandans.” The point of my article was that the ICC’s “record over the last decade and a half has disappointed many of those who sought its creation” and to set forth some of the reasons. I could readily cite atrocities committed by governments and guerrilla groups in many countries in different parts of the world that have not been the targets of ICC prosecutions, and not just in the African countries on which Epstein focuses. The notion that Rwandans and Ugandans are getting a free pass because of security relationships with the West, as Epstein suggests, would be more plausible if the ICC had prosecuted crimes by Syria, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Russia, and other countries that lack such relationships. Also, the ICC prosecutor is pursuing an effort to bring indictments against American CIA officials for crimes committed in Afghanistan. If the prosecutor were deferring to the security interests of the West, I imagine avoiding such a prosecution would matter more than protecting high-level Rwandans and Ugandans. The failure to bring more prosecutions is more likely to be a consequence of the weaknesses that I pointed out than of the conspiracies imagined by Epstein.