5 June 2009 Holding leaders accountable for human rights abuses can take time, but they must face justice, according to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has made a career of going after top officials, starting in his native Argentina and more recently in The Hague as Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC).
As a young lawyer, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo was appointed Deputy Prosecutor in the military junta trials against Argentinean generals and other authorities accused of human rights crimes during the so-called “dirty war” years from 1976 to 1983, when thousands disappeared.
“The first case was against some of the top commanders of the junta, including the former president, so we started right at the top,” he said in an interview with the UN News Centre, as part of its Newsmaker profile series.
Nine senior commanders, including three former heads of State, were indicted during the trials, and five were convicted.
Initially, the country was not behind the prosecution of its former leaders, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo recalled, noting that even his own mother criticised the proceedings.
“I could not convince my own mother, so it was not easy. But when the trial started, the most interesting lesson I learned was that the trial educated the entire population,” he said. “In fact, my mother called me two weeks after the trial started and said ‘you were right, I was wrong.’”
Mr. Moreno-Ocampo thought prosecuting the junta trials, at the age of 32, was the peak of his career. But that was until he received a call from the ICC six years ago.
“The job was an extremely exciting opportunity. I think it’s the most fascinating legal institution ever created,” he said of the Court, set up by the 1998 Rome Statute to help end impunity for the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
As Prosecutor, he has opened investigations in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda, as well as in Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region.
As he had during the junta trials in Argentina, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo again went after those alleged to have sent out orders to commit some of the worst atrocities imaginable, the most high-profile being Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir.
“I focused on the top people. Because of my experience in Argentina I knew we could not prosecute middle- ranking officers, which made our lives more difficult,” he said.
“The most important issue is to prove that what happened in Darfur is a massive campaign against the civilians orchestrated by the top leader of the country, because that has important consequences.”
In March, ICC judges issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Al-Bashir, the first sitting head of State to be indicted by the Court, for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur, where an estimated 300,000 people have died and another 3 million have been displaced by fighting since 2003 between rebels and government forces and their allied Arab militiamen, known as the Janjaweed.
The Sudanese President has been indicted on two counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity, but the ICC pre-trial chamber found there was insufficient evidence to charge him with genocide, noting that if the prosecution presents additional evidence the warrant could be amended at a later date.
“The important thing is for the international community to send a strong message that this cannot happen, a head of State cannot commit crimes against his own citizens, and he has to be stopped,” stressed the Prosecutor. “Omar Al-Bashir has to face the Court.”
Mr. Moreno-Ocampo stressed this point again as he updated the Security Council today on his investigations into crimes in Darfur.
“International experiences as the case of Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor, or national experiences, tell us that the implementation of a judicial decision against a head of State is a process that can take time, months or years,” he told the 15-member body.
“In the end, however, they all faced justice.”
To date, six of the 13 men indicted by the ICC are still at large, including Mr. Al-Bashir. One has been confirmed dead and another suspected to have died, while four are in custody awaiting trial in The Hague.
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