When Americans see the atrocities carried out in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and parts of Africa, the instinctive reaction is to do something right away to punish those responsible - to order air strikes, troops on the ground, or at least the imposition of sanctions. However satisfying that might appear to be, the call of justice takes longer to answer - evidence must be collected, perpetrators must be apprehended, and due process must be observed. Sometimes that takes years - even decades. This is the world of Ambassador Stephen Rapp, the US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, who pointed out over a roundtable lunch on Friday that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia is still ongoing forty years after the genocide was committed.
"It may not be possible to prosecute people when they are committing genocide - but at some point it will become possible," said Rapp. "Working to enable accountability is what my job is about... In a lot of these cases you don't get justice right away."
The concept of international criminal justice was introduced with the Nuremberg trials after World War II, but the practice did not really establish itself until after the end of the Cold War, with tribunals on Rwanda and Sierra Leone and the prosecution of war criminals from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.
The reason for pursuing justice internationally is not just to punish the guilty, but to help dissuade future war crimes and gross abuses of justice. "You want to get leaders to decide not to shoot into the crowd, to withdraw quietly into exile, rather than be on a wanted poster for the rest of their lives," said Rapp.
The ongoing conflict in Syria, which has seen more than 200,000 deaths and horrific stories of torture and targeting of civilians, has been particularly frustrating for Rapp. He gave a presentation last May to the UN Security Council about an enormous trove of photographs showing some 11,000 Syrians who had been killed, many tortured to death by the Assad regime. The photographs had been smuggled out of the country by an official military photographer, and after his presentation the French proposed the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal for Syria - but the resolution was vetoed by Russia and China. "Every morning I wake up and think - is there any way we could form a court for Syria?" In the meantime, he says, the main thing to be done with Syria is to meticulously collect evidence of war crimes - some time in the future that evidence will be needed in a courtroom.
Dealing with ISIS, said Rapp, will actually be more easy - unlike the government of Syria, ISIS has no large state protectors, and nobody is likely to block trials for ISIS members who have committed war crimes. States from where the foreign fighters originate can prosecute their own nationals for trying to travel to join ISIS, and states whose citizens have been killed as hostages can also prosecute. Rapp cited the notorious example of "Jihadi John" the Kuwaiti-born British man who is thought to be responsible for beheading three American, two British and two Japanese hostages. "If Jihadi John is captured he could be tried in a country whose nationals he has beheaded, including in the US." And unlike many of the war crimes perpetrators who try to cover their tracks, Rapp said prosecuting Jihadi John would be relatively straightforward: "I don't have a lot of problems with evidence when he is boasting on camera about the beheadings."
Rapp said that in distinction to the "victors' justice" of Nuremberg, it is far better to have broad international involvement in a war crimes tribunal, to make the process appear as independent and impartial as possible: "it is better if you have maximum international engagement." The US has famously pulled out of the International Criminal Court, but since 2009 Washington has nonetheless collaborated with the work of the ICC. However he pointed out that if the death penalty is involved, the European Union and the UN will not get involved. This was the case with the prosecution of Saddam Hussein in 2006, when the Iraqis said they wanted to handle the trial but asked for international assistance - neither the EU nor the UN would get involved because it was clear the Iraqi judges wanted to be able to impose a death penalty, so the Iraqis had to rely on the assistance of the US, where the death penalty is permitted in federal cases and in some states.
Rapp ended with a strong endorsement of the US role overseas: "we are and remain an indispensable nation - our engagement abroad is not just to protect others, but to protect ourselves too, because when we ignore problems overseas, they come home to us."