A meeting of legal minds

Balancing national security interests with human rights and the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was the key focus during the first day of proceedings of the Raoul Wallenberg Day International Human Rights Symposium at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School. The two-day symposium opened on Jan. 17 and brought together some of the world’s top minds in law and human rights. Partcipants considered how to balance the increasing role of national security with the equally important need for human rights. They also heard presentations on the role of the ICC. 

In his keynote address, federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, right, described Raoul Wallenberg as a “lost hero of humanity” whose legacy furthered the advancement of international human rights. Drawing on lessons from recent history, Cotler stated that state-sanctioned hatred often begins with derogatory words and labels intended to isolate an identifiable community or group. In the case of Rwanda and the Balkans, the failure of the international community to respond amounted to a crime of indifference.

“The best protection against mass atrocity lies in the prevention of abuse,” Cotler said. He cited democracy, an independent judiciary and a free press as preconditions to a culture of prevention. “Whenever states are unwilling to stop mass atrocity or perpetuate it, then there is a responsibility to make a forcible human intervention,” he added. By bringing war criminals to justice, the International Criminal Court serves as a warning that there will be “no safe haven for enemies of humankind.” He concluded by calling for the prosecution of perpetrators of the “global slave trade,” targeting millions of women and children around the world.

Harold Koh, left, dean of Yale Law School, discussed the US response to issues of war, terrorism and national security. Touching on US anti-terrorism measures, including the Patriot Act, and citing human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay and the infamous Iraqi prison, Abu Ghraib, Koh said American citizens are rejecting the compromise of human rights in exchange for temporary security. According to Koh, a pattern of resistance has emerged that is evident in the judiciary, including the US Supreme Court. “The American people are not as harsh as [those] in power,” Koh said.

Richard Goldstone, right, former chief prosecutor of the UN International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, discussed the advances made by these tribunals, and expressed his optimism for the success of the ICC, despite America’s withdrawal of support. The international war crimes tribunals of the mid 90s set out the “laws of war,” including the rules of engagement surrounding the bombing of military targets, and addressed gender-related crimes, which had previously been omitted. He called the US non-ratification of the Rome treaty a “tragedy,” but cited positive advances and said in the post-9/11 bombing of Afghanistan, “care was taken to protect civilians.” He viewed the work of the tribunals and the ongoing influence of the ICC as a major impetus. He added that he is confident the U.S. will “come on board” due to widespread public support for the prosecution of war criminals.

dubeClaire L’Heureux Dubé, left, Juge en résidence, Laval University Law School and a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, explored the rationale behind American reluctance to partake in the ICC, calling the nation’s lack of cooperation “unprecedented,” and debunking what she called “exaggerated” concerns regarding sovereignty and jurisdiction.

L’Heureux Dubé addressed these issues by outlining safeguards implemented by the ICC, which can only intervene if a nation’s courts block the pursuit of justice. She emphasized that state courts are first allowed to conduct independent investigations. L’Heureux Dubé also cited US concerns about due process rights, which she believes are addressed by the ICC in more detail than the US Bill of Rights. She questioned the logic of an American foreign policy which holds sovereignty to be inviolable, yet interferes in the affairs of other sovereign nations.

Sharon Williams, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, further elaborated on the mandate of the ICC. She emphasized its focus on the “individualization of guilt” in trying the leaders of abusive regimes, whereas individual states and governments are not subject to prosecution. Ratifying the Rome treaty was a process of compromise between nations who voiced concern over a wide range of issues, Williams said. Sex crimes and the debate surrounding forced pregnancy of women in conflict zones proved pivotal. A number of parties, including the Vatican, worried that criminalization of anti-abortion laws on a national level could occur. Williams brought forth the fact that in the case of some states, the ratification of the treaty has had no effect on domestic law.

The symposium was held in the newly renovated Moot Court at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School. It coincided with official Raoul Wallenberg Day events and drew together participants from government, academia and the law to discuss the principles of international human rights law, in keeping with Wallenberg’s legacy. Wallenberg was an outstanding humanitarian who saved more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews from Nazi death camps during World War II. Law students from across Canada have received travel bursaries in order to attend this event. The symposium continued yesterday.