An American Judge Accused Of Setting War Criminals Free

After a string of acquittals by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, some accuse Judge Theodor Meron, a Polish-born American citizen, of having a political agenda.

Meron has been the head of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia since 2011
Meron has been the head of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia since 2011
Luis Lema

THE HAGUE - Is the authority of international justice going wobbly?

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the body responsible for trying those accused of the most atrocious crimes committed in the 1990s, has delivered several judgments recently that surprised some of its closest observers.

Over the course of a few months, six senior civil and military officials were set free, in apparent total disregard of the current legislation. Now criticism is starting to boil over, with one person is the center of attention: the ICTY presiding judge, Theodor Meron, who previously had served as Israel's ambassador to Canada and to the United Nations offices in Geneva, before emigrating to the United States, where he became a citizen and eventually a top legal advisor to the State Department.

A few days ago, Danish ICTY judge Frederik Harhoff dropped a bombshell. Following recent decisions to acquit Croatian generals, one commander and a few former Serbian intelligence chiefs, Harhoff expressed concern in what was supposed to be a confidential letter that direct pressure was being applied on the court by top Israeli and US military staff.

The recent verdicts had something in common: they absolve representatives and officers as long as they did not show “direct intent” in the crimes they committed. The Tribunal used to insist on the notion of “joint criminal enterprise” so as to take into account the people of the highest ranks. Now it appears to be focusing on simple underlings.

Meron applied the same “philosophy” in the Rwandan Tribunal in which he is the presiding judge in the appeals process. In February, two former Rwandan ministers were let go on appeal, after having been previously sentenced to 30 years of jail for participating in the carrying out of the Tutsi genocide.

According to multiple sources, Meron, 84, doesn’t hesitate to highlight the fact that he is American in order to convince some colleagues looking, for instance, to get reappointed.

Other judges had previously noted their discomfort with Meron's approach, with one calling his juridical reasoning “grotesque.”

This is not the first time that Meron has been directly accused of actively mixing politics with his role as judge. A document recently unveiled by Wikileaks describes a conversation in 2003 between the judge and an American ambassador: Pierre-Richard Prosper. At the time, Swiss magistrate Carla Del Ponte was presiding at the ICTY. Meron, who didn’t like the way she worked, relied on the ambassador to make sure Carla Del Ponte was not renewed at the ICTY.

It is clearly specified in the tribunal statutes that it must act independently. Reaching for political support is contrary to the most elementary principles that make the system work. This is an “absolutely unacceptable” method, claims specialist Jon Heller on the legal website Opinio Juris.

Human rights activists have penned a letter of outrage addressed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Within this tribunal, created by the UN Security Council, there is no legislation to indict Theodor Meron. “In the right historical context, we would have eliminated this blind spot of immunity. But now we’re trying to make that change,” says Florence Hartmann, former spokeswoman for Carla Del Ponte.

Hartmann says the surprising acquittals in the Balkans undermine any chance of reconciliation. But it is also a blow for the overall standing of international law itself: “If it’s impossible to sentence the people responsible in the hierarchy, we sabotage the Geneva Conventions,” she says.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!