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Long-term Peace, Stability Require Acknowledging Past Wrongs, Secretary-General
Tells General Assembly Debate on Role of Criminal Justice in Reconciliation
Following are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks to the General Assembly Thematic Debate on the Role of International Criminal Justice in Reconciliation, in New York on 10 April:
I am pleased to address the General Assembly on the role of international criminal justice in reconciliation. This is a topic of tremendous consequence.
Reconciliation is one of the great essentials in our work for post-crisis healing. But it can be difficult to know just when a society has sufficiently looked at the roots of conflict and addressed the peoples’ grievances. All too often, even though fighting has stopped, and even after considerable time and effort, feelings can still be raw and tensions can still erupt at seemingly slight provocation. That is why true reconciliation is so important. And it is precisely here that international criminal justice can make a decisive contribution.
The advance of international criminal justice is arguably the most positive development in international relations of the past generation. Two decades ago, almost 50 years after the Nuremberg trials — and in the face of horrendous acts that at times summoned up those very ghosts — the international community established the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The world was determined to ensure accountability for the crimes perpetrated during those conflicts.
Since those initial milestones, we have seen similarly pioneering additions to the judicial landscape, including the International Criminal Court, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Through their jurisprudence, these new instruments of justice have ushered in an age of accountability. Impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other serious international crimes is no longer acceptable, nor is it tolerated.
Those who stoke the flames of hatred and division — whether Head of State, head of militia, individual soldier or individual citizen — have increasingly few places to hide. Women and girls — often among the most vulnerable during conflict — have been given additional protection. Just two days ago, I met in The Hague with the Presidents of the International Courts and the Tribunals. I thanked them for their work. I stressed my full and unequivocal support for their efforts.
As the General Assembly declared at last September’s High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law, violations of international humanitarian law and gross violations of human rights law must be properly investigated and sanctioned. But justice is not only a matter of punishing the perpetrators. History has shown that long-term peace and stability requires the acknowledgement of past wrong-doings. For post-conflict societies traumatized by death and destruction, accountability can help prevent any recurrence. The Security Council emphasized precisely this in establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Let us also remember that even when it is found that a particular person did not commit a crime — especially if such a finding is based primarily on technicalities — this is not the same as finding that no crime took place. The system of international criminal justice has also given voice to victims and witnesses. Where once they might have gone unheard, left to suffer in silence, today they have a platform, not just through the courts and tribunals, but through truth commissions and similar mechanisms that have proven to be of immense value. And what they are seeing and helping to make possible would have been considered unimaginable not so long ago. In Europe, Africa and Asia, once-powerful military and political leaders are being indicted and made to answer for their acts. Where once the rule of one man may have held sway, today the rule of law is on the rise. The effect on individuals, and on society as a whole, has been dramatic and cathartic. Even the amassing of trial documentation aids the cause, helping to ensure that history cannot be distorted for political ends.
In recent years, both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda have transferred cases to national jurisdictions. Such transfers help to ensure justice. They also facilitate the building of strong and independent domestic legal systems in which the rule of law flourishes and in which prosecution, defence and judicial organs have the capacity to conduct fair trials.
The International Criminal Court, for its part, continues to contribute to our efforts to promote peace and security and respect for human rights. At the same time, we must remember that it is a court of last resort, and that the primary responsibility to prosecute international crimes lies with Member States. A successful International Criminal Court will be one that sees its workload diminish, universal acceptance of its jurisdiction and all of its States parties fully engaged in efforts to end impunity and ensure accountability for international crimes.
We cannot expect to attain our goals of peace, development and respect for human rights without promoting and supporting a robust system of international criminal justice. I call on everyone in this room and our partners around the world to join together to support and strengthen this system. That is our shared responsibility. It is also our common interest.
Supporting the Tribunals and Courts means respecting — and not calling into question — their independence, impartiality and integrity. It means implementing their decisions. And it means safeguarding them from those who seek to undermine them for reasons that may have more to do with politics than justice.
The growing reach of international criminal justice is a hopeful trend for upholding our common humanity. I am strongly committed to providing the support these Courts and Tribunals need to succeed, now and in the future.
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