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.
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.