On the Front Lines of Justice: The Struggle for Accountability in National Contexts


In the aftermath of massive crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, trials held in countries where the crimes occurred serve to reaffirm fundamental rights and dignity of victims and foster the rule of law. Such trials are only possible where political will, adequate resources and technical capacities exist at the national level.

The International Criminal Court (ICC)—while an important last resort—will only ever deal with select cases of international crimes where countries are unwilling or unable to prosecute them. It is the obligation of a state to ensure that citizens can trust their courts to carry out rigorous investigations into atrocities, no matter how powerful the perpetrator. In the words of ICTJ Vice President Paul Seils, “Justice elsewhere isn’t meaningless, but it means less.”

On International Criminal Justice Day, 2014, ICTJ joins the global celebrations marking the groundbreaking establishment of the Rome Statute in 1998, which created the International Criminal Court (ICC). Below, to mark the day, we review five scenarios where national systems proved it was possible to bring perpetrators to justice where it matters the most.

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"This is a historic day. Today legal justice has been made real — never again the justice of one's own hands, which the repressors were known for." – Human rights activist Tati Almeida, as quoted by Debora Rey, AP

A series of military juntas controlled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, and ruled over campaigns of terror against Argentineans. Jorge Rafael Videla commanded the military coup that took power in 1976 and he remained the president of Argentina until 1981.

During those years, the regime systematically persecuted political opponents and democracy activists, which resulted in the disappearance of over 30,000 people. Civilians were kidnapped and held incommunicado in secret detention centers where they were tortured, raped, and often killed. Many infants were abducted and illegally adopted by families who supported the regime.

In 1985, nine top military leaders were successfully prosecuted in a landmark trial, the Trial of the Juntas. Only a year later, in 1986, the convicted perpetrators were left free when an amnesty law, known as “Full Stop Law,” was passed by the Congress. However, in 2005, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled this law unconstitutional, and the government re-opened prosecutions of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship.

In 2010, the Supreme Court of Justice in Argentina convicted Videla of human rights abuses including torture and murder and sentenced him to life in prison. He died in jail in 2013. Videla was one of the first Latin American dictators to be convicted of crimes against humanity.

To date, 540 people have been sentenced for crimes committed during the “Dirty War”, and many trials are still ongoing. The effort has been widely recognized as one of the most robust examples of prosecuting human rights violations committed under dictatorship, and with these trials Argentina has signaled its serious commitment to justice.

Read more about transitional justice in Argentina here

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

“I felt such a spiritual satisfaction after the testimony that I could do something for those innocent victims. I felt grateful for the opportunity to tell my story, unburden myself. In fact, I felt sorry I had asked for protection, that I didn’t testify publicly.” - A witness in the Koricanske Stijene case held before War Crimes Chamber.

Amidst the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, more than 100 000 people died in the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As Bosnian Serb, Croat and Bosnian government forces fought for control of territory, numerous atrocities were committed, including wholesale killings of civilians, mass rape, torture in concentration camps, and genocide in Srebrenica when Bosnian Serb units slaughtered more than 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in July 1995. More than a million people were displaced.

As the war still raged, in May 1993 the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to prosecute those most responsible for crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. Although the ICTY indicted 161 high-ranking perpetrators, including presidents, government ministers and army commanders, its mandate was limited and it became clear that courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina would have to process most of the crimes in the country.

In 2005, a special chamber of the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a special unit of the State Prosecutor’s office were established to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Initially, the investigations and trials were conducted with support from international judges and prosecutors, but over time they were replace by national counterparts. To date, the War Crimes Chamber has completed more than 200 cases, including those transferred by the ICTY and complex cases of genocide with multiple accused. Investigations against some 1000 perpetrators are ongoing.

Although it faces continuous political pressure, it is hailed as one of the most successful national efforts in the prosecution of serious crimes.

Read more about transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia here.

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"If the survivors of the hell of Auschwitz could no longer bear witness—and certain circles are waiting for just that—then the Auschwitz would become nothing more than a legend in a short time. Were it not for this trial, in which the truth was heard out of the mouths of the survivors, those who refuse to learn would have continued their attempts to minimize. That this is no longer possible is, next to the punishment of the guilty, the lasting achievement of this trial. - Accessory Prosecutor Henry Ormond

The Nazi party in Germany discriminated against Jews and other minority groups from the beginning of the 20th century in accordance with their belief in social Darwinism and a superior Aryan race. The Nazis arrested thousands of people and sent them to internment centers or concentration camps where people were detained, forced to work, tortured, and murdered. The mass murder that took place mostly during World War II from 1939-1945 resulted in the death of six million Jews and more than 11 million people in total.

Between 1963 and 1965 the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial took place in Frankfurt to charge leaders of the largest concentration camp, Auschwitz, for their crimes during the war. Around 360 witnesses were called, including about 210 survivors. 22 SS officers, Kapos, and other Auschwitz officials were tried. Six officials received life sentences, and many others were given long sentences. It was the first time individuals responsible for the Nazi's methods of exterminating Jews and people of other minorities were brought before national courts in Germany.

As the largest and most extensive trial in postwar Germany, the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial was an important step in drawing public attention to the crimes committed by SS soldiers as well as to thousands of survivor testimonies describing the torture, starvation and slaughter people endured during this deadly period in Germany.

The attention that the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial brought to the crimes committed during the Holocaust paved the way for other trials in the pursuit of justice for similar atrocities. The Belzec trial from 1963-1965 tried eight former SS soldiers of the Belzec concentration camp, the Treblinka trial from 1964-1965 accused eleven former SS officers of the Treblinka trial of war crimes, and the Sobibór trial was held in Hagen, Germany in 1965 against twelve former SS soldiers formerly employed by the Sobibór extermination camp. These trials served the crucial dual purpose of exposing truths and making the general public aware of the full extent of the crimes committed by members of the Nazi party during the war, while bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Learn more about identities and the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial in ICTJ's 2009 Research Brief here.

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“I am pleased that he is being tried in Peru, something which has not happened in the majority of Latin American countries where dictators continue to walk free. I feel proud that the state is trying him while he is still alive.” – Monica Miranda, activist from Lima.

In 1980, the Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path sparked an armed conflict in Peru that lasted two decades. Both the insurgent groups and the State armed forces committed atrocious violations against civilians during that period. Between 1980 and 2000, nearly 70,000 people were killed, and thousands of others were tortured and raped. Violence targeted rural and indigenous communities in particular. Alberto Fujimori was president of Peru during this period of “dirty war” from 1990 until 2000.

In 2007, a three-judge panel of Peru’s Supreme Court began the first of three trials for six separate charges against Fujimori. He pled not guilty to all charges, but a special court in Lima for human rights abuses declared him guilty in April 2009.

In November 2009, a Peruvian national court convicted Fujimori for crimes against humanity, including aggravated homicide, aggravated kidnapping, severe injuries and forced disappearance of persons. Fujimori is the first democratically elected Latin American leader to be found guilty of human rights abuses in his own country.

In 2006, Peru convicted one-time Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán and other Shining Path leaders to life imprisonment for terrorism and other offences, sentencing him, and his second in command, Elena Iparraguirre, to life imprisonment. The other ten co-defendants were also found guilty, and received sentences between 24 and 35 years of imprisonment.

Learn more: Access the 2014 English version of the final report of Peru's truth and Reconciliation Commission, "Hatun Willakuy" here.

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Sierra Leone

“My life will never be the same again, but my heart is satisfied that a man as powerful as Taylor has been made to answer for what the rebels did to me.” – Sierra Leonean woman responding to verdict, as quoted by Alpha Sesay, OSJI

Between 1991 and 2002, tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans lost their lives in a bloody civil conflict. The uprising of the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) against the government had atrocious consequences for civilians, who were massively raped, mutilated, tortured, and displaced. The RUF was supported by the Liberian rebel forces, under Liberian President Charles Taylor’s command. In 1997, Taylor became president of Liberia after another long and cruel civil war in the neighboring country.

In 2000, Sierra Leone and the United Nations established a special court to prosecute those most responsible for human rights violations during the conflict. This Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) became the world’s first “hybrid” international criminal tribunal and brought ten RUF leaders to trial in 2003, of which nine were convicted. One of the SCSL’s greatest victories, however, came after the Chief Prosecutor of the SCSL filed an indictment against Charles Taylor while he was still president of Liberia in 2003.

The SCSL indicted Charles Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. In 2012, Taylor was convicted of all charges. He was he first head of state to be convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international or hybrid court.

As the first tribunal to complete its mandate, the SCSL has now closed its doors. In addition to its important judicial record and the measure of justice it brought for victims and affected communities, the Court has had a broad impact on Sierra Leone as a post-conflict society: During its lifespan, the Court undertook significant capacity-building projects through its professional development program, helping to train and build the expertise of dozens of Sierra Leonean investigators, lawyers, and judges. Among its many accomplishments, the Court has initiated steps to create the first national witness protection unit in Sierra Leone, one of only a few witness protection systems in Africa.

Learn more about the Special Court for Sierra Leone: access ICTJ's SCSL legacy project here.

(TOP) Relatives of victims killed during Argentina's dirty war celebrate the verdict at the end of the trial of former dictator Jorge Videla in Cordoba, Argentina, Wednesday Dec. 22, 2010. Former dictator Jorge Videla was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday for the torture and murder of 31 prisoners in 1976. It was the first conviction for the military junta leader, who led the military coup that installed Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship, in 25 years of democracy. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko); Argentina's last dictator, former Gen. Reinaldo Benito Bignone, arrives to a courthouse for the verdict in his trial, along with five former generals and two others, who are accused of kidnappings and murders in one of the nation's largest torture centers, the Campo de Mayo military base, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Tuesday, April 20, 2010. Bignone was accused of holding ultimate responsibility for cases of torture, illegal break-ins and deprivations of freedoms from 1976 to 1978, before he was appointed president by the military junta in the waning years of the dictatorship (1982-1983). (AP Photo/Rolando Andrade Stracuzzi); Former local leader of the Serbian Democratic Party led by Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian Serb Miroslav Deronjic, flanked by two U.N. guards, is seen during his initial appearance for the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday July 10, 2002. Deronjic was accused of crimes against humanity including persecutions and murder and of organising the massacre of 65 Bosnian Muslim men from Glogova. Deronjic pleaded innocent. (AP Photo/Pool, Jasper Juinen); Judge Walter Hotz, left, a leading member of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial commission, walks past the former headquarters building during a visit to the extermination camp at Auschwitz, now in Poland, Dec. 19, 1964. He and a court team were gathering on-the-spot evidence for the trial in West Germany of former Auschwitz officials. In the background at extreme left is a crematorium chimney. As many as four million people are believed to have been killed at Auschwitz by the Nazis in World War II. (AP Photo/P); Sierra Leone's local chiefs arrive to watch the broadcast of Liberian ex-leader Charles Taylor's trial taking place in the Hague, at the Special Court, in Freetown on April 26, 2012. Liberian ex-leader Charles Taylor was convicted of arming rebels during Sierra Leone's civil war in return for blood diamonds, in an historic verdict for international justice. (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/GettyImages); Peru's former President (1990-2000) Alberto Fujimori checks his blood presure before a hearing at a courtroom in Lima on October 17, 2013. The 75-year-old Fujimori is serving a 25-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2009 of human rights violations during his 10-year presidency from 1990 to 2000. (ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images).
Learn about ICTJ's Criminal Justice work here.