A ‘New Model’ to Fight War Crimes

Midway through his nine-year term as prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo is ebullient about the prospects—and progress—of the tribunal. As bureaucracies go, he says, the court has moved faster than expected against those accused of war crimes. "This for me is the beginning of a new era in international relations," says the Argentine lawyer.

Moreno-Ocampo, 55, has devoted much of his career to fighting human-rights abuses. In the mid-1980s he played a key role in prosecuting nine leaders of the military dictatorship that ran his country from 1976 to 1983. In New York this week to testify before the United Nations Security Council on Sudan, he spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz and Jonathan Tepperman about the work of the 105-nation court and his views on Washington's decision not to become one of its members. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The concept of an international court has always been controversial. What's the greatest achievement of the ICC so far?
Luis Moreno-Ocampo:
When I was appointed I had six floors of empty [office] space, and some people told me that I would only be able to bring frivolous cases. Four years later I am investigating the most serious cases in the world—in Darfur, northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

Your report to the U.N. Security Council says the Sudanese government is not cooperating with your efforts to arrest former minister Ahmad Harun and militia leader Ali Kushayb, who are accused of war crimes in Darfur. What weapons do you have to enforce your arrest warrant?
The same weapons that the court has in [the United States]: legitimacy. People learn to respect that. People know they have to respect the law. Before [we brought] our case in Darfur, people were talking about janjaweed militia, but no one described how the system worked. We showed how Ahmad Harun coordinated all these activities. Because my role is to understand how all these crimes are committed, this information is crucial. That is some part of the [court's] impact … Also, look at northern Uganda, where the intervention of the ICC had impact [after the court issued arrest warrants for leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army in 2005]. [When] Sudan signed an agreement with us to execute the warrant, [LRA leader Joseph] Kony lost his safe haven in Sudan and moved to northern Congo. That produced an important change, because it meant there were no more attacks in Uganda. Thousands of children were walking [into the bush] each night to sleep safely. Now they are sleeping in their own houses.

Are you hoping that the U.N. troops scheduled to be deployed to Darfur next year can find and arrest Harun and Kushayb?
No, we never requested the U.N. to make arrests. We've always made it clear that the government of Sudan is responsible for arrests. [But] they are not investigating the cases … They never recognized that a member of the government was involved. Part of my job is to tell the truth. So when [Khartoum says] these are isolated attacks [on the Darfur camps], I say no way, it is a cover-up. Darfuris are being attacked in a campaign by the people who are meant to protect them, and Harun is in the middle.

Washington's reasons for not joining the court included fears that it could be politically manipulated and that U.S. soldiers abroad might risk prosecution. How do you feel about that decision?
I believe the U.S. has the right to decide to join the court or not to join the court.

Have relations with the U.S. improved since the court was founded in 2002?
They're much firmer, because while [the United States] is not a member of the court, it is not hostile. All the main U.S. allies are inside the court: Japan, Australia, Europe. It is not the court of the enemy; it is the court supported by all the U.S. allies.

How well are you able to function without the active participation of the strongest country in the world?
We've proved we can do it. It is important to have universality, it is important that the biggest states are inside, but in the meantime the court is up and running. We are starting the first trial in a few months [of Congo militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, accused of forcing children under 15 to fight in the conflict]. This for me is the beginning of a new era in international relations, in which legitimacy and respect for the law are key.

Are you hoping that a new administration in Washington could change its mind about joining the court?
I can't say. But what I can say is that I work with Egypt, with Qatar, I brief China, Russia. You don't need to join the court to work with the court … If we fulfill our mandate, who could be against the investigation of genocide or crimes against humanity?

You've been willing to adopt quite a high-profile personal role, especially by agreeing to be featured as one of the main characters in the behind-the-scenes "Darfur Now" documentary. Has the publicity helped your work?
The most important part of the court is that people understand the rules. Publicity will support that, but it has to be used judiciously.

Where does the court go from here?
[The ICC] is not just a court, it's an institution. The law has a lot of consensus—even more than the court. It's difficult to establish a global system when there is no global government, so it's an agreement on the rules. It's a new design, it's a revolutionary design, it's a model to build a global community.

Join the Discussion