The International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals — the successor to two dedicated courts for war crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia — saw major strides forward in recent months, including capturing a high-profile fugitive sought for more than 20 years, its senior officials told the Security Council during an 8 June videoconference meeting*.
Carmel Agius, President of the Mechanism, joined Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz in briefing the 15-member Council and introducing their latest report (document S/2020/309). Both underscored the significance of the 16 May arrest of the fugitive Félicien Kabuga — alleged to have been a leading figure in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda — as a signal to war criminals still at large that they will not evade accountability. They also drew attention to the recent confirmation of the death of the fugitive Augustin Bizimana, describing both developments as a result of the Mechanism’s shift towards a more proactive, data-driven approach. Both men also outlined efforts to keep pressing forward with the court’s work despite the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sadly, no corner of the globe has been spared from this terrible pandemic,” said Mr. Agius, recalling that the world was in a very different place when he last addressed the Council in December 2019. At that time, the Mechanism was poised to finish its judicial caseload by the end of 2020, leaving only potential appellate work pending. However, those projections “did not factor in a global pandemic that would effectively bring the world to a standstill”. Despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, the Mechanism has managed to keep disruptions to a minimum and seen its work yield results, with written case work progressing apace even as COVID-19 stalled in-court proceedings.
However, he said, cases that were expected to conclude by the end of 2020 — such as that of Stanišić and Simatović — are now expected to continue into early 2021, with a trial judgment expected by April of that year. The case against Ratko Mladić, which was originally scheduled for March but postponed to June as the defendant underwent surgery, has been stayed until further notice as a result of the pandemic. “The Appeals Chamber stands ready to hear the appeals in the Mladić case as soon as it is safe and feasible to do so,” he said. Turning to ongoing work at the court’s branch in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania, he said the single judge there has postponed the start of the multi-accused contempt case Turinabo et al as pandemic-related restrictions impeded the travel of accused persons and witnesses living across three continents.
Turning to the major breakthrough of the reporting period — the high-profile arrest in France of Mr. Kabuga — he thanked the many national authorities that contributed to that accomplishment. He also praised their assistance in confirming the death of Mr. Bizimana, who also stood accused of taking part in the 1994 genocide. “I cannot help but wonder how many more fugitives could be brought to justice, if the cooperation and trust so evident from these achievements were to continue,” he said, urging States to help keep the Mechanism’s momentum alive.
Despite those positive developments, he noted that the situation of nine acquitted people — who were released but now languish in a safehouse in Arusha — paints a dimmer picture. Every moment drags on for those men, one of whom has been stranded in uncertainty since 2004. “Our joint failure to find a solution can only erode confidence in our system and undermine other successes,” he warned.
He went on to outline other elements of the court’s work, including the recent publication of a practice direction on the procedure for applications of pardon, commutation of sentences or early release. Voicing his hope that the guidance will help clarify and streamline that process, he described two substantive refinements reflecting the existing eligibility threshold for early release and the President’s discretion to grant early release subject to conditions. He also detailed proactive steps to keep convicted persons safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, describing the safety of convicted persons as paramount.
Concluding his virtual remarks, he emphasized that COVID-19 is not the only virus the world currently faces, with endemic hatred, division and denial also spreading broadly. “Though we know that not every pathogen causes a pandemic, we see every day that these destructive forces are becoming more virulent and that the purveyors of hate feel emboldened,” he cautioned.
Mr. Brammertz echoed those sentiments and elaborated further on the work that led to the capture of Mr. Kabuga. His office has intensified efforts and employed a revised tracking since 2016, focusing less on reacting to leads from human sources and more towards a proactive, analysis-driven approach tailored to each fugitive. In the case of Mr. Kabuga, that strategy focused on a family network in Western Europe, especially France and Belgium, with a major breakthrough occurring as data revealed a pattern in those family members’ movements near Paris. A joint operation carried out with French authorities led to a successful arrest on 16 May.
Turning to the other major development, he said that his office on 22 May was able to confirm the death of Mr. Bizimana — former Minister for Defence in the Interim Government and alleged to have been a senior leader of the 1994 genocide. Describing intensified efforts to verify the hypothesis that Mr. Bizimana was deceased, he spotlighted support from the United States Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory and the Netherlands Forensic Institute, which led to the definitive identification of human remains. The Mechanism now plans to file a motion to officially terminate the proceedings against Mr. Bizimana.
“These successes were the result of our collective efforts,” he said, thanking the Council for its support. Many Member States assisted with intelligence gathering, searches and arrests. Calling for redoubled efforts to arrest the Mechanism’s six remaining fugitives, he said his office already has several credible leads. Outreach has already begun with national authorities, including those of South Africa, he said, recalling that the African Union has encouraged its members to cooperate with the Mechanism. “The victims and survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda deserve nothing less than our collective best efforts.”
In light of the Kabuga arrest, he underlined the importance of remembering that the arrest of fugitives is not the end of the process. Victims should also have crimes recognized. Regrettably, the denial of war crimes and glorification of war criminals is widespread, with efforts to deny the 1994 genocide still prevalent among Rwandan diaspora communities. Such trends are also present in the former Yugoslavia, including among politicians, with one example seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina as recently as last week. Warning that such a climate has a chilling effect and undermines the rule of law, he urged leaders to make the upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre a moment of reflection, to act responsibly and to publicly condemn the perpetrators of genocide.
In the ensuing discussion, many Council members applauded the international cooperation which led to the successful arrest of Mr. Kabuga after more than 20 years. Some also welcomed the Mechanism’s quick adaptation and efforts to ensure its continuity of work during the COVID-19 pandemic. While several delegates hailed strides towards achieving the Council’s vision of a leaner, temporary and efficient court, some called for additional reforms to compel the Mechanism to complete its mandated tasks more expeditiously.
The representative of Tunisia praised the Mechanism for carrying on the “formidable and vivid legacy” of the ad-hoc tribunals as a catalyst of accountability. Commending its accomplishments, he said it remains essential that countries continue to lend their full and timely support. “Accountability that is proximate to the victims and affected communities must be at the core of any viable model of justice and central to meaningful reconciliation efforts,” he said, urging the Mechanism to ensure that international justice also remains domestically relevant. He joined others in sounding an alarm over resurging genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals, condemning any revisionist accounts that seek to undermine truth, coexistence and intercommunal reconciliation.
Estonia’s representative, commending the court’s work amid delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, agreed that international criminal justice and the fight against impunity continues to rely on collective effort. He strongly urged Member States to provide the necessary assistance to facilitate the arrest and trial of the six remaining fugitives. Indeed, the essence of the Mechanism’s efforts is to establish justice and provide recourse to victims, but, from the past, it is clear that little was done internationally to stop the killings when they were taking place. The Council must do better in the future to prevent and react to similar horrendous crimes, he stressed, noting that the Mechanism helps States and individuals do better in keeping the promise of “never again”.
The representative of South Africa echoed expressions of praise for the Mechanism’s exemplary work amid the pandemic. Citing the assertion that the Prosecutor’s Office sought cooperation from South Africa in arresting and transferring a fugitive on its territory in 2018 — and that his country did not attempt to execute requests for assistance until late 2019 — he said challenges presented by his nation’s domestic laws regrettably constrained its cooperation. However, that has since been addressed. Reaffirming South Africa’s commitment to its international obligations, he declared: “We remain determined to continue all efforts, in cooperation with the Prosecution and where possible other relevant States, to trace and surrender fugitives from justice.”
Belgium’s delegate joined others in welcoming the Mechanism’s successes, adding that its message to war criminals could not be clearer — “the international community will not tolerate impunity for the most serious crimes of international law”. However, its work can only be effective if States cooperate. The Office of the Prosecutor has, once again, struggled to obtain the necessary cooperation from several relevant Member States in its search for the six remaining fugitives indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Strongly encouraging those States to assist with and participate in those efforts, he welcomed the commitment expressed by South Africa in today’s meeting, while calling on States to prioritize prosecution and to combat hate speech and discrimination.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines also applauded the court for its quick adaptation and commitment to operational continuity amid the pandemic, as well as efforts to ensure the well-being of persons in detention. Noting that the Mechanism has fully implemented most of the recommendations contained in the 2018 report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services — including harmonizing the work of its two branches and exceeding its gender‑balance goal — she also welcomed the recent jurisprudential guidance on the conditional early release of convicted individuals. However, the court’s work relies on the full cooperation of Member States. Absent such support, the tracking and apprehension of additional fugitives will be severely impeded, she warned.
Indonesia’s representative encouraged the Mechanism to ensure the effective, efficient and timely conclusion of judicial proceedings and to make innovative adjustments — considering coronavirus-related restrictions — to implement the Office of Internal Oversight Services recommendations. Commending the ongoing efforts of the Prosecutor’s Office and cooperating countries, he called on States, particularly those where fugitives are suspected to be still at large, to bolster and intensify cooperation in line with relevant Council resolutions. He described Mr. Kabuga’s arrest as a testament to the Mechanism’s ability to render justice to victims and survivors, while at the same time amplifying the message that no one can escape justice.
The representative of Niger said the court has contributed to fighting impunity, preventing and deterring the commission of new crimes, promoting reconciliation and responding to aspirations for justice for victims and their families. Welcoming efforts to guarantee the fundamental rights of convicted persons, he also noted significant gains in the areas of administration, sentence enforcement, protection of victims and witnesses and the management of archives. Urging the Mechanism to ensure that fair trials are held in accordance with due process and respect for the human rights of the accused, he anticipated the forthcoming renewal of the court’s mandate, as well as the reappointment of the judges, which will allow their important work for justice to prevail.
The representative of the United Kingdom reaffirmed her delegation’s commitment to the Mechanism and its vision of the court being a small, temporary and efficient structure. While welcoming preparations to establish an international investigative task force focusing on Rwandan genocide suspects in Europe, she said a lack of cooperation has hindered the Prosecutor’s broader efforts. “It is our collective responsibility to seek justice for victims and our obligation under the Charter of the United Nations to cooperate with the Mechanism,” she stressed, also voicing disappointment over the lack of progress on relocating the nine acquitted and released persons in Arusha. In addition, she called on countries of the Western Balkans to honour commitments made under the 2018 Joint Declaration on War Crimes and voiced deep concern that glorifying war criminals continues on all sides.
The Russian Federation’s delegate, emphasizing that the Mechanism was created in 2010 to be a “small, temporary and efficient structure”, joined other speakers in pointing out that its current two-year mandate ends on 30 June. Noting that the Council is currently reviewing its work, he recalled that the Office of Internal Oversight Services review found that criminal tribunals created by the Council lacked a judicial planning system and instead made its forecasts at random. The Mechanism must provide and adhere to clear and focused timeline projections, which should be reflected in the Council’s resolution. Drawing attention to the poor health of Mr. Mladić, a defendant currently detained by the Mechanism, he called on the court to prioritize the health of detained persons and provide them with appropriate medical assistance.
The representative of the Dominican Republic noted that it is crucial to adhere to the Mechanism’s mandate schedule. Spotlighting measures taken by the court to combat COVID-19’s negative effects on its staff and workload, he also applauded efforts to integrate a gender perspective into its work and expressed hope that gender-related activities postponed due to the virus will resume shortly. He underlined the obligation of all countries to cooperate, especially when contacted to provide information. “The arrest of Félicien Kabuga is a perfect example of the benefits of good cooperation between States and the Mechanism,” he said, voicing the Dominican Republic’s own commitment, as well as its support for the extension of the mandates of the President and Chief Prosecutor beyond 30 June.
The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in her national capacity, noting that her country fully supports the Mechanism and underlining the 15-member organ’s responsibility to do the same. The arrest of Mr. Kabuga on 16 May in the suburbs of Paris — which brings to a close 20 years of active search — would not have been possible without close international cooperation at the level of European justice and police services, between Governments and with the court. “It reveals the relevance and dynamism of the Mechanism, which continues its investigative and fact-finding work and responsibilities,” she said, describing the current moment as an important one for Rwandan victims and for that country’s national reconciliation process. Following the confirmation of Mr. Bizimana’s death, it is crucial that the six outstanding fugitives be brought to justice. Regarding the cases referred to national jurisdictions, she reaffirmed France’s commitment to completing the case of Laurent Bucyibaruta within a reasonable timeframe.
The representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina emphasized that successful conclusion of the Mechanism's mandate within a reasonable time frame is of crucial importance for justice and reconciliation in his country and the region. Noting that COVID-19 has significantly impacted the work of the country’s judicial institutions, he nevertheless recalled Sarajevo’s long‑standing cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and its successor. Consistent cooperation among the various prosecutors’ offices and other relevant authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia — in accordance with the principles of international justice and the rule of law — is particularly crucial, he said, adding that the protection of witnesses is of utmost importance.
Croatia’s representative said that, after almost 30 years, a significant number of victims and their families still have not found long-awaited justice. Voicing full support for the Mechanism and describing the forthcoming twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide as a reminder of its important work, he cited increasingly positive cooperation between his country and Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, cooperation with Serbia remains unsatisfactory, and Croatia is still awaiting Belgrade’s response to an invitation to a final round of talks to draft a bilateral agreement on the processing of war crimes. Recalling that full cooperation with the Mechanism is one of the conditions in Serbia′s negotiation process with the European Union, he went on to voice regret over pandemic-related delays impacting the Mechanism’s case work and reiterated the importance of concluding all pending cases in a timely manner.
Also participating were the representatives of China, Germany, Rwanda, Serbia, United States and Viet Nam.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.