As you know, on September 24, 2012, there will be a high-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the topic “The rule of law at the national and international levels” during the high-level segment of its sixty-seventh session. As the UN Secretary-General notes in his report prepared at the request of the General Assembly in advance of the meeting, it is crucial for member states to reach an agreement on key goals in strengthening the rule of law so that member states and the UN have clear objectives to work towards in the years to come. The report outlines a number of different areas that merit consideration under the rule of law rubric, such as improving access to justice, developing policies aimed at fostering economic reform, and promoting the peaceful settlement of disputes.There is no “one size fits all” approach.
While there are a number of important rule of law priorities, the Secretary-General also rightly states that ensuring accountability for atrocity crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, is “key to increasing public trust in justice and security institutions, and to building the rule of law and sustainable peace.” Human Rights Watch believes that the high-level meeting presents an important occasion—albeit it on an admittedly difficult political landscape—to promote accountability for these crimes as a key ingredient of the rule of law.
Where capacity to fulfill this responsibility is lacking—not uncommon given the complexities of international criminal law—states should resolve to strengthen their domestic justice systems to effectively address impunity. Assistance from other governments may be crucial to boost capacity, and donor states should incorporate accountability for atrocity crimes and the specialized skills needed to achieve it as a substantively distinct subset of broader rule of law-enhancing programs. All states also have an imperative role to play in reducing unwillingness to pursue domestic accountability by reinforcing the importance they attribute to this goal.
Of course, the principle that states bear primary responsibility for ensuring accountability for atrocity crimes, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) stepping in only as a court of last resort, is a cornerstone of the Rome Statute. To that end, where national accountability is not possible and the crimes fall under the ICC’s jurisdiction, states parties should support the court, including by promoting cooperation with it in situations and cases where it is active. More broadly, all states should be driven by the impartial application of the law rather than politics in addressing justice for atrocity crimes at the national and international levels.
Against this backdrop, we urge your government to make the most of the opportunities presented by discussions leading up to the General Assembly meeting, including those around the outcome document; your government’s intervention at the meeting; and the pledging process.
1. Discussions leading up to the high-level meeting, including on the outcome document
The UN General Assembly has determined that the high-level meeting will result in a “concise outcome document” and has requested the convening of “inclusive informal consultations” prior to the meeting. The outcome document may be instrumental in outlining the key themes that will be addressed in rule of law discussions for the foreseeable future. As such, we urge your government to underscore that pursuing accountability for atrocity crimes at the national and international levels should be reflected as a priority in the outcome document.
Your government should also consider stressing that national authorities bear the primary responsibility to ensure that effective justice for atrocity crimes becomes a reality, but that recourse to an international court may become necessary should domestic incapacity or unwillingness prove insurmountable. We further urge your government to support the inclusion of a follow-up mechanism—such as the consultative forum and/or the intergovernmental dialogue outlined in the Secretary-General’s report—to help coordinate and deepen ongoing discussions on the rule of law.
We make these recommendations cognizant of the diversity of views within the General Assembly. Given this reality, we recognize that language along the lines suggested above may not ultimately survive in the outcome document. Nonetheless, we believe it is essential for governments to signal their strong support for accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide as a key component of the rule of law in discussions around the outcome document. Silence on this core issue risks encouraging complacency when it comes to the fight against impunity.
More broadly, we encourage you to include the relevant development officials within your government in preparations for the high-level meeting. Given that these officials are responsible for devising and implementing rule of law programming on the ground, their input and buy-in will be crucial.
2. High-level meeting
Human Rights Watch encourages your government to use the high-level meeting as a platform to make constructive interventions to strengthen the effectiveness of national and international courts, including the ICC, in the fight against impunity and to support a follow-up mechanism to continue discussions on the rule of law as discussed above. We believe that the high-level meeting also presents an important opportunity to flag the value of an approach to accountability for atrocity crimes at both the national and international levels that is grounded in law rather than politics.
We urge your government to send senior officials to participate in the high-level meeting. The complex political landscape of the General Assembly makes it all the more important for your government to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law—which includes justice for atrocity crimes—at the highest level. Finally, as in the preparations phase, we encourage the inclusion of development officials in your delegation to the extent possible.
Following in the footsteps of the international conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Kampala Review Conference of the Rome Statute, the Secretary-General’s report urges member states to use the high-level meeting to make pledges on the rule of law “based on national priorities.” We urge your government to make concise, concrete, and measurable financial or political pledges aimed at furthering accountability for atrocity crimes at the national and international levels. Sample pledges may include: establishing the necessary legal basis to try atrocity crimes domestically; repealing laws that effectively give immunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; providing financial support to national nongovernmental organizations that promote accountability for atrocity crimes; adopting legislation to implement the Rome Statute; and working actively with other states on specific initiatives to promote universality and implementation of the Rome Statute.
I hope these suggestions are helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
Director, International Justice Program
Human Rights Watch
UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General, Delivering Justice: A programme of action to strengthen the rule of law at the national and international levels, A/66/749, March 16, 2012, para. 8. (“Secretary-General report”).
Secretary-General report, para. 36.
UN General Assembly, “The rule of law at the national and international levels,” A/RES/66/102, January 13, 2012, para. 16.
Secretary-General report, paras. 59-64.
Secretary-General report, para. 69.