US diplomat addresses war crimes

| Contributing Reporter

Stephen J. Rapp, recently appointed U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, came to Washington University on Monday to lecture about accountability in international war crimes.

His talk, titled “Can International Justice Meet the Demand for Accountability?”, attracted many law school students and faculty members interested in Rapp’s involvement in the fight for international justice. During his visit, Rapp also spoke with a selected group of undergraduate students as part of the Honorary Scholars Program led by Dean Ewan Harrison.

Rapp, who was appointed to his position by President Obama, now directly advises Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and formulates U.S. policy responses to atrocities committed in areas of conflict and elsewhere throughout the world.

Rapp’s fight for justice, however, began long before his recent appointment.

Beginning in 2001, Rapp widened his scope from private practice to the international stage. From 2001 to 2009, Rapp served as a U.N.-appointed prosecutor in trials involving the genocide in Rwanda and mass atrocities against civilians in Sierra Leone.

In the lecture, Rapp explained the inspiration for his turn in career path.

“I have always been interested in international politics,” Rapp said.

During his term, Rapp spearheaded prosecutions that led to the first convictions of leaders of the mass media for incitement to commit genocide. Furthermore, these prosecutions led to the first convictions of high-level commanders for acts of gender violence, including rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage, as crimes against humanity.

In addition to outlining the implications of judicial results, Rapp also noted the complex challenges that stood in the way of these convictions.

During the prosecutions, the international courts ran into difficulty proving the intentionality and conspiracy of leaders responsible for the atrocities in Rwanda and Sierra Leone due in part to language and culture differences. The challenge was further heightened when local governments lacked control over their nations and failed to prevent criminals from silencing witnesses.

The obstacle-filled road to the convictions only highlights the significance of these trials.

“These trials have contributed to the peace and reconciliation by exposing the end results of extremism and breaking the cycles of violence,” Rapp said. “They have also established a historical record to make it impossible in the future for these atrocities to be denied.”

While these trials have important precedence, Rapp said international efforts to account for war crimes against humanity are lacking.

“International institutions are important, but increasingly we have to rely on national ones that can prosecute more cases,” Rapp said on the avenue of seeking accountability for crimes against humanity in the future.

Rapp’s cautious-yet-optimistic message about the future fight for international justice was received with mixed reviews.

“It inspires some sort of hope in the face of atrocities like genocide and mass murder to know that a concrete justice system exists, that we can prosecute those who commit these kinds of crimes, crimes which are too often difficult to pin down on their perpetrators,” freshman and Honorary Scholar Anna Applebaum said.

Others expressed more reservations.

“I think that one day maybe we can get there—this idea where nations can be accountable for themselves. I just don’t think I have seen it yet,” said Sadena Thevarajah, third-year student at the School of Law.

“There is a lot of work to be done to protect citizens of the countries where the atrocities occur,” she added.

The event was organized by Leila Sadat, professor of law and director of the Harris World Law Institute at the law school.

  • Corinne Crettaz

    I wanted to say it was a real honor for your University to introduce such a man… because he is a real man. Justice is not just a word, acts of gender violence are not a specificity of poor countries, we all must be very careful about that kind of human expressions. As long as men who believe in JUSTICE, FREEDOM and HUMAN RIGHTS exist, we can be safe. Thank you to your University, to Leila Sadat… and of course to SJ Rapp.

    From France.