The United Nations General Assembly Wednesday held its first ever debate on the role of the international criminal justice system in reconciliation, with its president stressing the vital part it must play not just in looking back on past atrocities but in bringing former foes together to build a better and more inclusive Thursday.
"The paramount question is how international criminal justice can help reconcile former adversaries in post-conflict, transitioning societies," Assembly President Vuk Jeremic said in opening the session.
Over the past two decades various international criminal courts have been set up, either under UN sponsorship or in cooperation with the world body, to judge war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in countries as diverse as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia.
These include the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is not country-specific.
Addressing the Assembly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that the international criminal justice system was launched two decades ago, almost 50 years after the Nuremberg trials against Nazi war criminals, "in the face of horrendous acts that at times summoned up those very ghosts" from the Second World War.
"Impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other serious international crimes is no longer acceptable, nor is it tolerated," he said, noting that the system has also given voice to victims and witnesses. "Where once they might have gone unheard, left to suffer in silence, Wednesday they have a platform."
He added that supporting international tribunals and courts means respecting, and not calling into question, their independence, impartiality and integrity. "It means implementing their decisions. And it means safeguarding them from those who seek to undermine them for reasons that may have more to do with politics than justice," he said.
Highlighting the theme of reconciliation, Jeremic, who comes from Serbia, part of former Yugoslavia, said: "Reconciliation will come about when all the parties to a conflict are ready to speak the truth to each other. Honouring all the victims is at the heart of this endeavour. That is why it is so critically important to ensure atrocities are neither denied, nor bizarrely celebrated as national triumphs.
"Reconciliation is in its essence about the future, about making sure we do not allow Tuesday´s tragedies to circumscribe our ability to reach out to each other, and work together for a better, more inclusive Thursday."
He noted that the subject is immensely sensitive, often involving considerations of delicate matters like sovereignty or impartiality. "But I firmly believe there should be no forbidden subjects in the General Assembly," he said. "Where else can all Member States come together, as equals, to exchange views frankly, openly, and inclusively on far-reaching issues?"
Ban later discussed the Assembly session with President Tomislav Nikoli of Serbia and reiterated the UN' s unshakeable commitment to continue to support the workings of international justice and the role of international tribunals as critical instruments to combat impunity.
He voiced his hope that Belgrade and Pristina would continue to engage in dialogue under the auspices of the European Union with a view to achieving forward-looking outcomes in the political talks between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, but Serbia does not recognize the declaration.
Ban also met representatives of the Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves, where at least some 6,000 Moslem men and boys were massacred in the breakaway Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 during the wars in former Yugoslavia, as well as the Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide.
Forty-eight countries are scheduled to speak during the day-long General Assembly session.