December 11, 1999
NYT - International Law can help deter Human Rights abuses

By TIM WEINER

WASHINGTON -- At the end of a century when governments killed tens of millions of citizens with impunity, the long arm of international law now threatens tyrants with imprisonment, a leading human rights group says.

International tribunals and a proposed permanent international criminal court can deter inhumanity in the century to come, said the group, Human Rights Watch, in its annual report on nations that commit crimes against their people.

This year, as never before, "governmental leaders who committed these crimes faced a greater chance of prosecution and even military intervention," the report, issued on Thursday, said. "The lesson sent is that leaders risk their freedom and control of territory if they commit the most severe human rights abuses."

As the reach of international law and institutions grows, the power of sovereignty is breaking down, and that represents "the beginning of a new era for the human rights movement," the report said.

The milestones this year included the case brought in Spain and Britain against the former dictator of Chile, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The year also saw the first indictment by an international criminal tribunal of a sitting head of state, President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.

"Tyrants are increasingly likely to be indicted," the report said. And, "at least in parts of the world" like Kosovo and East Timor, "the international community seems more willing to deploy troops to halt massive slaughter."

The concept that human rights can override national sovereignty was framed by the U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, in his speech in September at the opening of the General Assembly.

He warned that "the developing international form in favor of intervention to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter" would be met with skepticism and hostility from many nations.

Those skeptics include India and China. The two nations, each with more than 1 billion people, say sovereignty has to be strengthened, not weakened. China argues forcefully that human rights are an internal affair, not an international one.

And even the United States has qualms about sacrificing a measure of sovereignty in the name of human rights. It has resisted the establishment of an international criminal court, which would be the first permanent global institution able to prosecute war criminals and human-rights violators. The current U.N. tribunals are investigating crimes only in the Balkans and in Rwanda.

Although it supported the United Nations' creation of the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the United States last year voted against establishing a permanent international criminal court. The Pentagon strongly objected to the idea, arguing that it might expose U.S. troops overseas to prosecution.

Other U.S. officials, citing the case against Pinochet, voiced fears that U.S. policymakers could be accused of complicity in deaths that resulted from covert actions in the Cold War undertaken by the United States in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

But 120 countries, including almost every major U.S. ally except Israel, have signed the treaty to establish the permanent international criminal court. After 60 governments have ratified it, which could take years or decades, it will start operating.

"It is no longer a question of if, but when," said the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.

http://www.nytimes.com/library/world/global/121199human-rights.html

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]