During the 1990s, mass atrocities in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere shocked the world. The human toll and horror were incomprehensible in these savage conflicts that saw a resurgence of concentration camps, “ethnic cleansing,” genocide with machetes and farm implements, the “new” war crime of mass rape, and other innumerable assaults on life and property.
In light of these widespread atrocities, a key component of U.S. foreign policy under the Clinton Administration in the 1990s became a pursuit of international justice and a determination to prevent and punish atrocities including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Ambassador David Scheffer, an international law expert, served as the administration’s point person in its international justice efforts. He was the lead architect of the ad hoc international criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia, and the permanent International Criminal Court. During Clinton’s first term, Scheffer was senior advisor and counsel to Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. When she became the Secretary of State in 1997, he was appointed the first U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues — a position referred to as “the Ambassador to Hell” — and he served in that role until 2001. As a result of Scheffer’s efforts, international courts are now operating and prosecuting leading perpetrators of mass atrocities as they set a standard for a new era of justice and protection of human rights.
In his compelling new memoir, All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton), Scheffer chronicles his experiences on the frontlines of international justice, from the difficult and often-frustrating efforts to create effective courts and bring perpetrators to justice to his own observations in the killing fields in Europe, Africa, and Asia as a witness to the aftermath of some of the most horrific crimes of the past century. Scheffer offers invaluable insights as a persevering diplomat with a tireless commitment to justice who was involved in every major decision as the lead architect in the creation of these unique courts of justice.
In addition to being very readable, this insider book will be invaluable to historians and students of international policy because, as Ambassador Scheffer noted in his Seattle talk to the World Affaris Council Feb. 21, it’s based on his personal notes and diaries of closed-door meetings and contains material that appears nowhere else. Scheffer is now the Mayer Brown/Robert A. Helman Professor of Law and director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University School of Law. He was named one of Foreign Policy’s “Top Global Thinkers of 2011.”
Ambassador Scheffer discussed his new book and experiences as the architect of war crimes tribunals by telephone as he traveled on his book tour.
Lindley: Did you take on war crimes as an issue yourself or was that assigned to you?
Ambassador David Scheffer: It was a little bit of everything. Remember, we didn’t have anyone with that kind of designation in the U.S. government, and yet we were grappling with these issues in real time, and someone had to take control of it. Madeleine Albright was clearly the leader, but had a big job to do as ambassador to the United Nations, and good leaders know how to delegate. She delegated the hard, daily, hourly work on it to myself, and that meant running endless tracks in Washington on these issues and then of course dealing with the tribunals themselves once they were built, and all the judges and prosecutors, and I was always on the phone with all these people trying to organize U.S. support and assistance, and galvanize our diplomatic pressure on every government to cooperate with the tribunals.
All of this took an enormous amount of time and effort and that’s what I was delegated to do in the first term. And we really felt that this had become a full time endeavor and it was important to have an envoy on top of it at all times, and that’s why the proposal emerged so quickly in the second term to actually create a new ambassadorship to address the incidents.
Lindley: To add historical context, how did the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals influence your thinking on the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and other tribunals?
Ambassador Scheffer: We were on terra nova in 1993 in terms of how to address the issue of accountability for atrocities in the Balkans. There was no international criminal court of any character, and none had existed since the international military tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II. We had to figure out how to build a court if we did this. Would we try to negotiate a treaty among nations to build an international criminal court? That would take years. Would we gear up a national court in the Balkans to take this on? The region was aflame. There was no security and it was impossible to conceive of a national court.
We did look back to Nuremberg and Tokyo and the charters for those military tribunals, which provided a template to work from, but this was not going to be victors’ justice. This had to be justice created by the international community to address the issue.
We looked at the U.N. Security Council where we have substantial power as a permanent member. We took a rather bold step in determining that the Security Council could be the body to create a criminal tribunal to address a threat to international peace and security with its authority under the Charter.
We took that direction and it unfolded very quickly. France was our partner in the Security Council that took the lead with us in pressing this issue forward. That resolution was adopted in late February 1993, and it was a preliminary step because it said that Secretary General should now draft a statute and bring it back to the Security Council to adopt a resolution that operationalizes the court. In May 1993, that statute was agreed to and the operational phase of the court began.
Lindley: As you tried to put together this tribunal, you must have been very aware of concentration camps and other ongoing atrocities in the Balkans.
Ambassador Scheffer: We were extremely aware. The news about the detention camps in Bosnia came out in 1992 and that was a huge incentive to build the Yugoslav tribunal at the beginning. And the news of atrocities continued to unfold in 1993, 1994, and early 1995.
I think the richness of the story is the reality that the Yugoslav tribunal was only one aspect of dealing with a situation of that character. It can’t be an instrument to literally bring war to an end. That’s not its purpose. The purpose of a tribunal is to adjudge crime and then render just punishment for it. It’s not literally an instrument of war fighting or war ending. But the other huge story of the Balkans in that period was failure of the U.S. government and the NATO countries to decide about how to most effectively address the military situation on the ground and bring the atrocities to an end. That was a failure of policymaking.
Lindley: As you were dealing with the violence in the Balkans, the genocide in Rwanda began in earnest in April 1994 as the Hutu majority began a campaign of extermination against the Tutsis. How aware were you of the mass killings there at that time?
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