War crimes ambassador speaks at Pitt law school

By Richard Rosengarten

For inspiration, Stephen Rapp looks back about 65 years, to the Nuremberg Trials.

He quotes… For inspiration, Stephen Rapp looks back about 65 years, to the Nuremberg Trials.

He quotes former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Jackson, the man who helped lead the prosecution of Nazis and other World War II war criminals:

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

Rapp, who spoke in the Teplitz Memorial Courtroom of the law school yesterday, has worked as a prosecutor in numerous international courts and tribunals, achieving unprecedented convictions that recognized sexual slavery and forced marriage as crimes against humanity.

He has also convicted people for the crime of direct and public incitement to commit genocide.

In September, Rapp became the U.S. ambassador at-large for war crimes issues, meaning he helps bring alleged war criminals to trial. His position, which was created by the Clinton administration, exists in few other governments.

So Rapp, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, works without appropriations, trying when he can to marshal funds from other organizations.

He spoke yesterday about the role of the United States in international criminal courts, which has been complex and contentious.

“The idea of universal jurisdiction is a controversial one,” Rapp said.

International courts and tribunals have sought to prosecute people for crimes against humanity. There have been prosecutions responding to conflicts in places such as Rwanda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The United States ratified a treaty that created the International Criminal Court in 2002, but later “unsigned” it, relieving itself from its commitment to refrain from “acts which would defeat the object and purpose” of the treaty.

It is one of only two countries that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was designed to protect children’s rights. The other country is Somalia, whose transitional government recently announced its intent to become a member.

The United States has been cautious of submitting to universal standards of conduct, Rapp said. The Bush administration adamantly opposed involvement with the International Criminal Court.

Obama has adopted a more solicitous approach, but most policy experts consider the United States far away from joining.

“I do not think we’ll see a president in the foreseeable future submitting the treaty to the Senate for ratification,” Rapp said.

Still, he said, the United States is heavily involved in issues of international justice, participating in domestic debates on defining torture.

“If you remember the days of the Bush administration, there was the whole debate about terrorism — whether they should be held incommunicado, whether they’re people who should benefit from the Geneva Conventions or whether they should be called unlawful combatants,” Charles Jalloh, a Pitt law professor who was born in Sierra Leone, said.

Jalloh invited Rapp to visit Pitt. He met Rapp when they were on opposing sides in the case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor, in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Jalloh served as the defense after Taylor fired his counsel. Rapp led the prosecution.

Rapp said he believes in the power of international justice, but that he wants to do more.

“People are not brought back, and wounds are not healed by justice,” he said.

Rapp is busy extending his influence.

After leaving Pittsburgh, he will travel to New York to speak at Pace Law School, hold meetings on Rwanda and visit the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Later, he will stop in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Baghdad.

He will be in Berlin by Feb. 16 for the Berlin Film Festival, where he will host a reception, see a new documentary about Nuremberg and “shake down” the Russian minister for funds for the Special Court in Sierra Leone.

He said he hopes to be back in the United States by Feb. 19.

Rapp said his goal is to make it easier for individual countries to bring justice to those who commit crimes against humanity, making sure the International Criminal Court is a last resort.

The international trials are important and emblematic, Rapp said, but they will only handle a handful of cases.

“If it’s going to happen,” he said, “it should happen in each individual country.”

International courts can only do so much. Rapp said his goal is to make local systems more effective so that there’s a better chance of justice at home.

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