Human rights progress, problems

The death this month of Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator whose secret police killed and tortured thousands of dissidents, helped seal 2006 as the most fateful year for war criminals and other human rights violators since the Nuremberg trials of 1946. But, at the same time, the docket of human-rights crimes is growing larger and more ill-defined than ever.

Just as the nature of human rights violations is evolving, so must the international community's response. The International Criminal Court at The Hague will need extra resources to handle all of its cases and adjudicate the messier ones. And regional and national courts deserve more support, since they are closest to the complexities on the ground. This year's successes should boost the world's momentum, even as human rights matters are growing more complicated.


Consider, first, the relative clarity of the accusations against those heads of state who met their fate or had charges brought against them this year.

At the time of his death, Mr. Pinochet faced unambiguous charges of ordering his secret police to kill at least 3,197 people and torture about 23,000. He died less than three months after Chile's Supreme Court lifted the immunity that had been protecting him.


Like Mr. Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic died this year before the end of his own trial. Also like Mr. Pinochet - but on a larger scale - Mr. Milosevic controlled a large military and police operation that was responsible for many of the 200,000 deaths in the former Yugoslavia during his reign.

Saddam Hussein, by contrast, lived to see his sentence, and the charges against the former Iraqi president have been as unambiguous as those against Mr. Pinochet and Mr. Milosevic. Mr. Hussein, always in strong control of the Baath Party and Iraqi armed forces, was sentenced Nov. 6 to hang for crimes against humanity in the execution of 148 men and children from the Iraqi town of Dujail in 1982. Yesterday, Iraq's appeals court upheld the ruling and called for Mr. Hussein to be executed within 30 days. If that doesn't happen, related trials are planned that would address his involvement in the deaths of up to 200,000 Iraqi Kurds.

Also in 2006, Charles Taylor, the former Liberian dictator, was captured and sent to The Hague.

Finally, former Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam was found guilty, albeit in absentia, of genocide after the 12-year trial of one of Africa's bloodiest governments ended this month.

That Mr. Pinochet, Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Hussein all met their fates - and that many others are being brought to trial - might suggest that the world is finally catching up with its war criminals and human rights violators.

But these are the faces of yesterday's criminals. Those yet to meet justice are a different lot: greater in number and more difficult to define and prosecute.

First, governments have found a way to blur their connections with killers and rights abusers, particularly in poor countries.

In Sudan, government officials repeatedly deny that they support the Janjaweed militias that have killed roughly 200,000 civilians in Sudan's Darfur region and displaced several hundred thousand more. And, yet, the Sudanese government is widely believed to arm and otherwise back the Janjaweed.


Until ?lvaro Uribe became Colombia's president in 2002 and empowered his armed forces, that country's administrations relied heavily on paramilitary groups to battle the leftist FARC insurgency. These paramilitary groups often engaged in more egregious killing and torture than the FARC rebels.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, up to six African countries have at times backed proxy militias in a struggle for power and natural resources. Those militias have contributed to a large share of the 4 million deaths in Congo since 1998.

More complex than these blurry relationships between governments and war criminals is the growing number of collapsed states. In these places, warring clans and ethnic groups account for most war crimes. Leaders of such groups are diffuse, and the killers often act independently.

In the past decade and a half of near-anarchy in Somalia, warring clans have engaged in "killings and reprisal killings of clan opponents ... cases of kidnapping as well as detention, and torture and ill-treatment of prisoners," according to a British report.

Meanwhile, reverberations were still being felt this year from the worst genocide of the 1990s. Simon Bikindi, a famous Rwandan singer, faces charges for writing lyrics that incited mass killings in 1994. Joining Mr. Bikindi on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda are journalists and religious leaders, along with military commanders and politicians.

And the Rwanda tribunal can't even handle all of the criminals, because so many Rwandans led or joined the militias. Now, neighbors are trying neighbors in a system called gacaca, which models itself after a traditional form of village-based justice.


Unfortunately, most crimes against humanity don't lend themselves to such creative, grass-roots justice. Instead, the international community must seek strategies to identify and try war criminals and their backers in places like Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Colombia, and, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Without more global attention and innovation, this year's successes are unlikely to be repeated. The International Criminal Court and related institutions at The Hague can't solve every problem, so regional courts, like the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, may deserve more support.

Investments in national judicial systems would help too, because local courts can best revise immunity laws as well as rebuild citizens' faith in local institutions.

Given all the human rights abuses in weak and failed states, though, centralized institutions will need more resources and expertise.

For its part, the United States could boost the world's momentum - and its own moral capital - by finally ratifying the International Criminal Court.

Matters have grown more complicated in the 60 years since Nuremberg. 2006 was indeed a successful year. Let's hope the world doesn't have to wait another 60 years for its next big leap forward against war criminals and human rights abuses.


John Rodden, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, is an editorial board member of Human Rights Review and the Journal of Human Rights. His e-mail is Michael D. Kerlin, previously a development consultant in Rwanda, writes about international affairs. His e-mail is