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U.S. Ambassador For War Crimes Discusses Ongoing Work In Africa, Middle East


What can be done to achieve justice for victims of war crimes? We speak to the United States Ambassador Of War Crimes, Stephen Rapp, about the work he's done on behalf of victims of war crimes and genocide.

What can be done to achieve justice for victims of war crimes? We speak to the United States Ambassador Of War Crimes, Stephen Rapp, about the work he's done on behalf of victims of war crimes and genocide.


Stephen Rapp, United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The world is watching as nations in the Arab, Middle East and Africa undergo a series of populist uprisings. The protests seem fueled by desires for more representative government and an end to repressive dictatorships of but in other areas of the world the struggle for liberation has not taken weeks but decades. It has been a stage for atrocities against civilians and attempts at genocide. Steve Rapp is US ambassador at large on war crimes issues. He recently spoke in San Diego about his mission to work on behalf of the victims. He joins us on These Days, and good morning, ambassador Rapp.

RAPP: Good morning Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation if you have questions about how the U.S. responds to war crimes, give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Ambassador Rapp, can you explain to our audience what you do as the US ambassador at large for war crime issues?

RAPP: Well, I follow up on the work that our cooperate has under taken for the last 15 years of insuring that justice is achieved, particularly in these international courts that have been established. I myself as a prosecutor at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, and later at the court in Sierra Leone. But these institutions have brought to justice people like Slobodan Miloševic of Serbia, and Charles Taylor in the case that I led at the Hague, and others, and created the expectation that justice is going to be done when there's genocide and other mass ark trots.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you say, for the past couple of years, you've been heavily involved in the human rights issues following the civil war in Sierra Leone. Now, I'm wondering, how do victims find justice after a long protracted civil war?

RAPP: Well, there are different ways to achieve justice, and -- but a key apart of it is to hold people accountable who have been responsible for mass murder, mass rape, mass mutilation, and certainly my experience dealing for ten years on this issue is that when there hadn't been accountable, when people have been able to get away with those crimes, in fact they occur time and time again. And that these are rational decision, even as hard as it is to believe, to go after a racial or ethnic or religious group or to conduct a campaign of terror against the civilian population. Leaders of governments, leaders of armed groups take these decisions because these tactics work for them in terms of gaining or upholding power. And wealth and minerals and other things. So what we really want to do is to establish an assurance that they're not gonna come out ahead, that there's a possibility of justice, and by doing that, deter these crimes and protect victims.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as the whole world has been riveted with the revolution in Egypt, and the up risings going on in other areas of the Arab northern Africa and Middle East, there was an event, a major event in Sudan that just happened a few weeks ago that may bring about anent to that nation's decades old civil war, a referendum that separates northern and southern Sudan. I wonder, since I know the international community has been riveted on the terrible things that have been going on in Sudan, I'd like to get your impressions of what's going on there now.

RAPP: Well, we're obviously very pleased that the comprehensive peace agreement that the United States was really the leader in negotiating in 2005 has been implemented to this point. And that there's been this referendum where 99 percent of the people in south Sudan have voted for independence, and are we're looking for that independence to come into being by the middle of this year, and for there to be a fair sharing of wealth within the former integrated Sudan. And the border and other issues are adjudicated with -- in a fair manner and without further violence. Understand that a lot of the world has also focused since 2003 on the violence, not in the south, but in the west.


RAPP: In Darfur, and this led to a decision by the united nations security council, which even though the United States under the bush administration was negative toward the international criminal court, it went along with the referral of the crimes being committed in Darfur, the mass murder and rape that had caused the deaths of tens of thousands and wounding of others, and the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of people. That led to cases in the international criminal court that the United States government and the Obama administration supports. And it's our belief that unless there's accountable for those crimes committed in Darfur, there's not gonna be peace in that part of Sudan.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I'm wondering the president of Sudan as I understand has been indicted by an international tribunal for genocide in Darfur. So how does that affect our dealings with the president of what may now be northern Susan, al-Bashir? And he still regarded as a legitimate leader?

RAPP: Well, when one deals with armed conflict, you have to negotiate with the parties that are involved in those conflicts. Our policy however has not opinion -- is not to have, you know, contact with individuals who have been indicted with -- for these serious crimes unless it is absolutely essential to a peace process, particularly something that would save lives. As we saw with Miloševic and with Taylor, that actually, it's through the sort of isolation of those individuals that to a large extent they become no longer strong in their own countries, and they become subject to potentially being turned over to international justice. But we obviously have engaged with other actors in the government of Sudan to insure that the CPA was -- was implemented. And we'll continue to engage in this process in Darfur between the government and rebel groups to try to achieve justice. And a key part of that, not just to the ICC sort of cases, the very top level people, is that there has to be accountable for those Janjaweed and others who have been out there murdering and raping. How are people ever gonna go back to their homes if those that did it to them are not held accountable? So one of the key things we'll be negotiate business in Darfur, we're not talking about becoming independent, but it having greater self government, we'll also be insuring that these atrocities are -- and shows responsible for them are brought to account.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Steven Rapp, he is U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues. And one of the reasons that the United States has been criticized about the issue of addressing war crimes in recent years is its refusal to ratify the Rome statute of the international criminal court, and as I understand that, what that means is that America is reluctant to seed its jurisdiction interest prosecuting people, U.S. military, who are accused of these sorts of crimes to an international tribunal. Is that still -- is that still the case? Will be -- do we still refuse to ratify that aspect of that?

RAPP: Well, that is still the case. Even in the Obama administration, we are very interested in what the international criminal court is doing. We're now engaged in participating as an observer, and its institutions, we were supporting the cases where it's -- where it's issued warrants of arrest, and trying to help the Court. We're also stating our commitment to uphold international humanitarian law through our own laws and true on through our own military and justice system, which are models of holding people to account, even high level individuals through our civilian justice system. And what's required even if we were in the ICC is that the country do it itself, it's only when there's a failure of will or capacity that the ICC gets involved at all. But the United States always takes a very long time to consider international treaties, some that have been almost [CHECK] you know, ratified around the world haven't been ratified here. It took us 40 years to ratify the genocide convention. So we're watching carefully what the ICC is doing ands you know, we'll see as it progresses, as it defines how the cases that it may take are defined and restricted we may get closer and closer to it.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, you have said, though, that you believe the future of international justice is at the national level. Why do you see it that way?

RAPP: Well, of course that's consistent with what the -- what the ICC also believes. It only is of course a last resort. The Court of first resort [CHECK] [CHECK] is the one at the national level. I had two major experiences of prosecuting an international justice, one was for the Rwanda genocide, that court was set up 500 miles away from Rwanda in Tanzania, and even though [CHECK] hate radio, and with together convicted military, and other political leaders [CHECK] do Rwanda and it was much better when we were in Sierra Leone, where all of our cases, except tailor were tried at the scene of the crime, so to speak. And people had access to what was being done, and we could go out into the communities and see where the crimes are being committed, meet the victims, answer questions in hundreds of public meetings. So I want justice as close as possible to the -- to the scene of the crime, to the affected individuals, to the victims, and ideally that would be in the national [CHECK] the capacity to do these cases, and they are tough cases, and sometimes you have to provide other prospects that could insure independence, which includes having some international personnel involved even among the judges. Those kinds of approaches, I think, offer the best chance to serve a durable justice, and leaving behind from international efforts a stronger judicial system that can insure that the People's rights and property and lives are protected.

CAVANAUGH: Ambassador Rapp, last week, you spoke at the Joan B. Crock institute for peace and justice here at USD, and you do a substantial amount of speaking about your tenure as U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues. What kind of questions do you most typically get from people? What are they curious about when it comes to the United States' response to war crimes.

RAPP: Well, I mean, I get a lot of questions about different places. And situations that have occurred, international justice, of course has been very active in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, ICC and now involved in the Democrat ib republic of Congo, and Uganda and Darfur. [CHECK] what about the crimes in this particular place? You know, are the victims agency blood not red here? And often people have come to meetings from -- you know, who are related to people in other countries or may have themselves experienced atrocities in their communities. And so the challenge is always what are we gonna do elsewhere, and like Burma and Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka, these issues are raised as well, and I talk about how we're trying to use what we have in the United States to pressure and to work with international organizations to try to -- to get justice in these places, to try to get it at the national level, if not at the national level, at least to have commissions of inquiry international. It can help find the facts and provide the bases for the country to go forward and establish justice. So it's -- the question of why not everywhere that's the most common one that I get. And I say, it's been international justice that's raised that expectation, and it's my responsibility and the responsibility of the American government and everyone in the world to see what we can do to meet that challenge and achieve justice for these atrocities wherever they're committed.

CAVANAUGH: How much of a priority do you feel pursuing justice for war crimes victims has? Does it get pushed aside quite readily by political considerations.

RAPP: Well, you know, these are sometimes inconvenient issues at particular times, but I've found that because of what's happened in the last 15 years, because of the Milsovics and tailors and the indictments of people like Joseph Coney and president al-Bashir of Sudan, these issues are there in every sort of policy discussion you see it particularly now even in Europe, even though the Yugoslavia tribunal is completing its working the, of whether [CHECK] the military leader alleged to be responsible for the massacre, the genocide of 8000 men and boys at Srebrenica, whether countries in the region are cooperating on that is a key question to what's happening in the European union is whether kitchens with move forward to membership in the EU. So everywhere you go, these issues of justice end up being front and center, and figuring out how to achieve that justice and to use the levers that are there is a key part of resolving international disputes.

CAVANAUGH: When I started introducing you, I talked about these headlines that we've been hearing for weeks now about up risings in northern Africa and the Middle East, and in Egypt, there are still those who would like to see former presidents Mubarak and his administration investigated for crimes against the Egyptian people while he was in power. Do you think the international community should be involved in that kind of an investigation?

RAPP: Well, the international community may be able to assist and individual countries may be able to assist in achieving justice when there are transitions. Of do keep in mind that the area that I deal with is genocide and mass atrocity. It's not situations of whether people have been fairly enriched themselves in a government position or whether there's been sporadic violence or mistreatment of individuals during that transition. It has to be something that's widespread or systematic before it -- before it would become a matter of a violation of international humanitarian law. The situations like that in Libya could -- could cross that line. The situation in Côte d'Ivoire at the moment could cross that line. So we're out there monitoring that, and making sure people understand that if you engaged in sort of the organized killing of people in the political basis and protests and that kind of thing and is widespread and systematic, you could find yourself fating consequences in international justice. And so we're watching these situations very, very carefully. And this is all part, of course, of our strategy, which is to absolutely insure that these protests and the response to them is peaceful. And that the answer is democratic, is reforms that lead to democracy and governments that reflect the will of the governed.

CAVANAUGH: In South Africa, most notably there were decades long violations of war crimes and atrocities against the population, and yet to a large extent, that population decided to resolve this through a peace and reconciliation committee. How is -- has that model been used elsewhere and how effective is it.

RAPP: Well, it has been copied elsewhere, perhaps not with the same effectiveness, understand. In South Africa, at least when the truth and reconciliation committee was established, there was the provision that people who did not come in and tell the whole truth, who didn't reveal who had been killed and where the bodies were buried and that kind of thing, if they Defendant's Exhibit do that, they could have faced criminal consequences now, in the end, they decided not to proceed, they were able to get compliance from a lot of people, and they found that to be sufficient. Of course they also had a transition that I think many of us viewed as an historic one that was almost irreversible, I mean, no one -- because the majority rule came into effect, no one really envisioned a situation where the Afrikaner group that had dominated the [CHECK] would ever come back to power. So the majority did say, this is the way we want to resolve this, was something I think that was understandable and that has worked. If it's not for us to tell countries precisely how they're gonna treat accountable and truth revealing, and there are lots of different ways to do that. Some of the truth commissions that have been established since South Africa haven't been very successful in getting the perpetrators to come in. The victims have testified, experts have helped write the reports, but the perpetrators are still out there ready to do it again. And so, you know, you've gotta have -- I think a really tough sort of approach to truth and reconciliation [CHECK] like we did in Sierra Leone, that the most senior people potentially could be subject to prosecution. But as for other offenders at the lower and midlevel, deal with the issues through a truth commission.

CAVANAUGH: Ambassador Rapp, I wonder, what are your long-term goals in this position? When your tenure is completed, what do you hope -- what changes do you hope to see?

RAPP: Well, I -- of course it's easy to look at places where there are handle challenges at the moment, like the democratic republic of Congo or mass killing and particularly as a way in which armed conflict is conducted in ways in which it's so much more dangerous to be an innocent woman or child than it is to be a soldier, that we respond to those crimes and we begin to achieve justice at the community and national level. I think I'll view myself as having had some success if we can be doing that in more places, if around the world, when we have these atrocities, we actually do begin to develop an approach to achieve justice at the national level. And that at the same time we recognize that the world has to have available institutions at the international level to provide justice when it's impossible because of capacity or will locally.

CAVANAUGH: Ambassador Rapp, thank you for your time this morning. I really appreciate it.

RAPP: Okay. Enjoyed it very much.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Steven Rapp, U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Coming up, we'll get a preview of climate conversations at Ruben H. Fleet science center. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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