Thursday, April 25, 2013

John Kerry's History of Supporting International War Tribunals

Secretary of State John Kerry.  Photo Credit: US Department of State.

By Catherine Mullin

Secretary of State John Kerry has a long history of supporting international war tribunals.  He first expressed his acute awareness about atrocities during war when testifying to Congress concerning his time serving in the Vietnam War.  He continued this effort throughout his service in public office. 

As a senator, John Kerry actively backed the war tribunal established in Cambodia.  He also encouraged President Clinton to join the International Criminal Court when it was first established.  Most recently, as Secretary of State, Kerry has continued his commitment to prosecuting atrocity crimes by expanding the scope of the War Crimes Rewards Program of the Office of Global Criminal Justice.

The process to establish the Cambodia Tribunal spread between 1997 and 2006, amid many doubts about its success.  The ambassador-at-large for war crimes at the time, David Scheffer, explained that “there were complex political, security, and legal reasons for the decade-long journey in Cambodia.”[1]  This tumultuous environment led many to believe the tribunal would not ultimately be formed.  However, when negotiations broke down, Senator Kerry intervened and aided the process.  For example, Kerry, who was the chairman of the East Asian subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “visited Phnom Penh in early April 1999 and proposed to [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen that a tribunal of mixed composition be established and staffed with international and Cambodian judges.”[2]  He continued to be a liaison between UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Hun Sen until the Tribunal was finally created.  Looking back on the process, Kerry reflected, “if the Cambodian people are to come to grips with their own history, there must be accountability for the perpetrators of genocide.”[3]

In 2000, Senator Kerry was one of eighteen Senators who signed a letter for President Clinton, encouraging the president to join the International Criminal Court.  This letter stated: “ The ICC represents an historic step forward in the international effort to punish and deter war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”[4]  Senator Kerry was clearly in support of moving from temporary tribunals set up in response to atrocities, to the permanent structure of the ICC.  Also, the letter mentions specifically how servicemembers would in fact be safer if the US joined the ICC.  This indicates that Secretary Kerry already has an answer for one of the most common critiques of the Court and of a US relationship with it.

During his time in the Senate, John Kerry consistently voted in favor of legislation that called for more US action in particular atrocity situations and increased familiarity with the ICC’s work.  One of the major legislations he backed was the Department of State Rewards Program Update and Technical Corrections Act of 2012.  The War Crimes Rewards Program, overseen by the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the State Department, originally was authorized to provide funds to aid specific war tribunals, including ICTY and ICTR.  Recently the legislation S.2318, under Secretary Kerry, expanded to offer up to $5 million in rewards for aiding in the arrest and conviction of criminals at large, and the distribution of funds to aid in any international tribunal.  When announcing the expansion of the Program Kerry echoed his convictions about atrocities he voiced around the Cambodian Tribunal: “Impunity is the enemy of peace. Accountability is essential to preventing atrocities from taking place in the future.” [5]  It is clear that Secretary Kerry still firmly believes in the importance of war tribunals in holding criminals accountable, as he has for the past three decades.

[1] Sheffer, David. All the Missing Souls. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2012) 343.
[2] Sheffer. 383.
[3] Kerry, John. “More Justice for Cambodia.”  Lowell Sun, 2010.
[4] Letter to President Clinton.
[5] Kerry, John. “More Work to Bring War Criminals to Justice.”


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