» by Volker Hüls
The international legal system has long struggled to deal with crimes in its realm.
After the attempts to outlaw war and aggression by states in the late 19th and early 20th century, the focus has gradually shifted
to individual responsibility for crimes under international law.
Landmarks in this needs-driven development of law have been the Nuremberg Trials and the tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia
and Rwanda. Major progress was made in attributing breaches of
"When whole states acted criminally, either internally or externally, other mechanisms were needed to provide much wanted information about the crimes and to attribute responsibility"
internationally recognised rules to individuals and
in prosecuting and trying these perpetrators in international courts. These cases did provide certain satisfaction
to the global community and to the victims, although they often fell short of fully addressing the scope of the violations.
When whole states acted criminally, either internally or externally, other mechanisms were needed to provide much
wanted information about the crimes and to attribute responsibility. As a result alternatives to individual trials have evolved;
truth commissions with a variety of mandates have worked in the aftermath of repressive regimes in South Africa, and
South American Countries. They often achieved a higher public satisfaction by exposing the workings of the regimes in
more detail than criminal trials could. Countries where both systems complemented each other arguably dealt with the
past more comprehensively.
These setups, however, were appropriate for post-conflict situations or successor governments. It is infinitely more difficult to
address the violations perpetrated by a government still in power. A case in point is Cambodia, where for decades no suitable
solution to deal with the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge was found. It seems there is a limit to justice when the responsible
are part of a recognised government. This brings international law back to its origins, when before World War One it mostly dealt
with the liability of states.
This paper will lay out the perceived gaps in international responsibility by looking at the example of the war in the Congo .
The complexity of this conflict is highly illustrative of justice issues faced today by the international community in the
aftermath of human rights atrocities. Domestic and state actors are entangled in a web of interests, which must be addressed fully
to lay the foundations of sustainable peace. Interestingly, the present discussion about justice for the Congo revolves around the
"The attribution of crimes to state actors is vital for reconciliation on a regional level and for long-term stability in the Great Lakes"
usual combination of trials and truth commissions. Although the Congolese government has taken steps to hold its neighbouring
states responsible before the International Court of Justice, this does not feature in the current discourse. It is argued that, contrary
to this perspective, the attribution of crimes to state actors is vital for reconciliation on a regional level and for long-term
stability in the Great Lakes. However, it becomes evident that the mechanisms for holding states responsible for crimes under
international law are still evolving and at present do not provide very effective tools. It is therefore concluded that practice must
follow recent codification and that only when used complementary with other instruments will state responsibility
help to fill the gaps in international justice.
© Volker Hüls 2004.
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