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Supporting our partners in search of justice

International Human Rights Programme / Partner story

Photo: © William Meyer

At the end of World War II, allied powers prosecuted those most responsible for Nazi atrocities. That effort was borne from a simple truth articulated by judges of the Nuremburg Tribunal when they commented, “Crimes are committed by men, not by abstract entities. It is only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can international law be enforced”. More than 70 years later, the international human rights movement works to give meaning to that dictum – to hold perpetrators to account and provide victims with the redress to which they are entitled.

“Crimes are committed by men; not by abstract entities. It is only by punishing individuals who commit such crime can international law be enforced.”

Judges of the Nuremberg Tribunal

Oak supports those efforts through its International Human Rights Programme. The road to justice can, however, be long and strewn with obstacles. This is especially the case when prosecuting international crimes. Here the legacy of past abuses, compounded by weak local capacity, renders justice elusive.

Too often, a threshold difficulty lies in simply deciding where to prosecute. While national courts are generally preferable, they are not always possible. For this reason, international courts, hybrid tribunals (i.e., a mix of national and international) and foreign courts exercising universal jurisdiction all play a role in closing the impunity gap.

The cases highlighted below illustrate that crucial mix: the national, regional and international dimensions to the search for justice.

National Court (Argentina)

In May 2016, a court in Argentina found that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, governments in Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay conspired to hunt down, kidnap and kill political opponents. That criminal conspiracy, known as Operation Condor, resulted in the murder of thousands.

The Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) in Buenos Aires represented the families of some of its victims.

After years of legal battles, 14 defendants, including the last Argentine dictator, high and mid-ranking Argentine military officials and an Uruguayan army colonel, were found guilty of criminal association, kidnapping and torture and sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years.

The trial, which spanned over three years and examined the cases of over 100 victims, exposed the scale and brutality of the (previously denied) conspiracy. It also proved instructive in terms of prosecuting cross-border crimes, taking into account the sheer number of evidentiary documents involved, the hundreds of witness testimonies given in diverse and scattered locations and the vast group of people targeted by the conspiracy. This included students, as well as political and trade union activists from five different countries.

Forty years after Operation Condor was formally founded and 16 years after the judicial investigation began, this trial delivered closure to grieving relatives and truth for posterity.

Hybrid Tribunal (Senegal)

In May 2016, the former President of Chad, Hissène Habré was sentenced by the Extraordinary African Court (a mixed tribunal established by both the Government of Senegal and the African Union) to life in prison. Guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture (including sexual violence and rape), Habré’s eight-year rule (1982-1990) resulted in the deaths of more than 40,000 people and in the kidnapping, rape and torture of many more. His sentence marked the end of a 16-year legal battle to secure his arrest and conviction.

This is a landmark case that represents a number of firsts for international criminal justice. It is the first time a former head of state has been convicted of crimes against humanity by the court of another country based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. This is a significant blow to the defence of “immunity”, which had previously shielded many perpetrators from being held to account. The conviction, moreover, of a former African leader by an African court is all the more significant, given the trenchant criticisms levelled by the African Union against the International Criminal Court for an alleged anti-African bias in its caseload. The Habré decision will be vital in stimulating greater discussion about the potential for international criminal justice on the continent.

Oak provided support to over half a dozen organisations engaged in the pursuit of justice for Habré’s victims. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, and the Human Rights Centre at the University of California Berkeley helped construct the evidential basis for prosecution through forensic evidence (identifying places of execution and burial) and statistical techniques to understand the scale of killing. Agir Ensemble pour les droits de l’homme galvanised the voices of victims, while Human Rights Watch conducted the advocacy critical to Habré’s arrest and prosecution in Senegal.

Habré’s conviction is a testament to the dedication and tireless persistence of victims and advocates alike. It signals that across the African continent there is local support to hold to account those responsible for international crimes.

International Criminal Court (The Hague)

In an unprecedented move, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands used its war crimes jurisdiction to prosecute Ahmed Al Mahdi (an Al-Qaida affiliated rebel), charged with the intentional destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque in 2012 in the ancient city of Timbuktu, Mali. Militants destroyed shrines and tombs of Sufi saints, all of which had been designated as UNESCO world heritage sites. Around 4,000 ancient manuscripts were also lost, burnt or stolen.

In framing its groundbreaking case, the ICC relied on a new digital tool developed by Situ Research. The interactive digital platform – which was developed in collaboration with the ICC over a four-month period – organises, analyses and presents evidence in visual and compelling ways. Combining geospatial information, historic satellite imagery, photographs, open-source videos and other forms of site documentation, it integrates spatial and visual technologies to exhibit the process of the site’s destruction. At his trial (and presumably in recognition of the incontrovertible nature of the evidence against him), Al Mahdi pleaded guilty on all counts and was later sentenced to nine years in prison.

Situ Research’s tool has transformed the way in which spatial evidence is presented in a courtroom. More broadly, the case will develop the legal framework for the global protection of cultural patrimony. In presenting the case, the ICC Chief Prosecutor noted the serious threat to cultural heritage from extremist groups, including ISIS. “History,” she warned, “will not be generous to our failure to care.”

Oak Foundation would like to thank these outstanding organisations for their extraordinary contribution to justice. Their efforts have helped uncover the truth, hold individuals to account and develop the legal framework for the prosecution of international crimes. As all these grantees will concede, the pursuit of justice is often slow, long and arduous. We are proud to have accompanied them on their inspirational and momentous journeys.

Justice beyond the courtroom

In one of the most traumatic chapters of Argentina’s military dictatorship, an estimated 500 babies were taken away from young parents who were made “to disappear” by the authorities. These children were adopted by families sympathetic to the regime, or even taken in by their parents’ killers. One of these babies is Guillermo Perez Roisinblit, who grew up as the son of Air Force intelligence officer Francisco Gómez and his wife Teodora. They were, in fact, his abductors. It took him 22 years to find out that his biological parents were dead, and that he had been born in the notorious ESMA camp, the Navy School of Mechanics in Buenos Aires where 5,000 people were killed. In 2005, Gómez – the man who he believed to be his father – was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in the kidnapping.

To date 121 cases of stolen children have been resolved, mostly through the tireless work of human rights groups such as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) – a non-governmental organisation that applies forensic methods to investigating human rights violations. The organisation manages a genetic database containing DNA data from family members of the disappeared, which is preserved to assist judicial authorities in prosecutions and truth-seeking initiatives. This painstaking process requires the location and identification of the remains of the victims, attributing the cause of death and restitution of remains to grieving relatives. But it serves an equally important role – it confirms the identities of kidnapped children, making forensic genetics an indispensable human rights tool.

The legacy of the ‘Dirty War’ is still being felt by many. While the recent trials are a part of Argentina’s attempt to reconcile with the past and live with its consequences, the search for truth remains focused on the several hundred stolen babies that have yet to be accounted for. EAAF assists families in this painful process and, in doing so, informs the public memory and builds a collective consciousness which guards against future abuse.

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report 2016