Saturday, November 15, 2014

Records of the UN War Crimes Commission open to the public for the first time

Tuesday 11th November 2014, a discussion panel took place at the UN HQ in New York on the United Nations War Crimes Commission Records (1943-1949).

"The United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) was operational between 1943 and 1948 and played a vital role in preparing the ground for the war crimes trials that followed the Second World War. The evidence was submitted by 17 member nations for evaluation so that war criminals could be arrested and prosecuted. 
The archive also contains records of trials carried out in various Member States and presented to the Commission, including national military tribunals and the Military Tribunal of the Far East (Tokyo Trials). 

This panel will bring together experts to discuss the content of these archival documents, their impact on the development of international law and the International Criminal Court, as well as their potential use by and value to students and academics. A full copy of the records of the Commission was provided to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in July of this year; they were not freely open to the public earlier. 

Opening remarks: 
Ms. Hua JIANG, Officer-in-Charge, United Nations Department of Public Information; 
H.E. Mr. Asoke Kumar MUKERJI, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations 
Mr. Adama DIENG, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide; 
Ms. Bridget SISK, Chief, United Nations Archives and Records Management Section; 
Mr. Patrick J. TREANOR, Former member of the Office of Special Investigations, the United States Department of Justice; 
Mr. Dan PLESCH, Director, The Centre for Diplomatic Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London; 
Mr. Henry MAYER, Senior Adviser on Archives, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 
Moderator: Ms. Edith LEDERER, United Nations Correspondent for The Associated Press"

"Speaking at the panel discussion, United Nations War Crimes Commission Records (1943-1949): Past, Present and Future, Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, underscored the importance of acknowledging the Commission’s legacy in terms of dealing with war crimes today.

“The United Nations War Crimes Commission was an important international justice initiative, but its work has largely remained in the darkness,” Mr. Dieng said.

Noting the significance of getting nations to agree so many years ago on setting up a central authority to investigate and make recommendations on war crimes, Mr. Dieng said the release of the archives to the public also represents a significant reminder of the importance of gathering and keeping records and bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice.

“The failure to hold those accountable can break down the social fabrics of society and perpetrate mistrust,” he said, adding: “A fragmented or frustrated society is a society that is more likely to return to violence.”

The archives of the War Crimes Commission contain evidence submitted by 17 Member States, including lists of alleged war criminals, files of charges brought against them, minutes of meetings, reports, correspondence, trial transcripts, and related documentation about the activities of the Commission, its committees, and individuals identified as alleged war criminals, including evidence compiled against them and records related to their prosecution by national tribunals.

Although some of the information in the documents has long been known to investigators and historians, prior to the Commission’s records being made available to the Museum, the public was unable to view the documents. Researchers at the UN, for instance, must petition for access through their governments."

Hopefully this announcement will attract greater attention to the holdings of the UN Archives:

In an interview with UN Radio, one of the panellists of today’s roundtable, Bridget Sisk, Chief of the UN Archives and Records Management Section, underscored the significance of ensuring that a record of what occurred during the Commission’s time of operation is kept. 

“We hope that the interest that’s been generated in the archives of the War Crimes Commission will stimulate greater research in the UN’s archives,” she stressed.

“We have archives spanning 108 years of history. But we also hope that it stimulates some momentum in the Organization among stakeholders to make sure that the digital records that the Organization is creating today of bodies such as the Commission are created and managed appropriately,” she added.

Speaking during the roundtable, Ms. Sisk highlighted that most of the charges discussed in the Commission’s records have never been subjected to judicial review.

She also noted that the rules regarding access to the records were not seriously challenged until 1986, when “intense pressure” led the Secretariat to a review of the policy following allegations that Kurt Waldheim, who served as UN Secretary-General from 1972 to 1981, had himself committed atrocities during the Second World War. 

Even today, Ms. Sisk said, the number of requests to the UN for access to the Commission’s records is “strikingly low,” averaging five or fewer per year."

A part of the UNWCC holdings are accessible online through the ICC Legal Tools Database:

"The ICC Legal Tools Database has made available virtually all of the unrestricted records of the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC), including its Far Eastern and Pacific Sub-Commission, and its three committees.

More than 2,240 UNWCC documents, totalling 22,184 pages, with search data for each document, have been added to the ICC Legal Tools Database. The records include meeting minutes from the Commission and its subordinate bodies, their working documents, and materials from the Research Office (which contain the Office’s own reports and reports from national and Allied authorities). Also included are a small but wide-ranging portion of the war crimes trial reports sent to the Commission by national authorities (Australia, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands and Norway)."

All holdings are open for public consultation in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington D.C.:

"The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has obtained a full copy of the U.N. War Crimes Commission archive that has largely been locked away for the past 70 years under restricted access at the United Nations. On Thursday, the museum will announce it has made the entire digital archive freely available to visitors in its research room.

Although information in the documents has long been known to investigators and historians, the public was kept out. Even researchers at the U.N. must petition for access through their governments."

Friday, August 8, 2014

Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of crimes against humanity and jailed for life

"A UN-backed war crimes tribunal has found the Khmer Rouge’s Brother No 2 Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced the two elderly men to life imprisonment, in a move heralded by human rights groups as a “historic victory” for the nation. The verdict comes nearly 40 years after the regime led by Pol Pot ended its murderous four-year reign over Cambodia, during which time nearly 2 million people – a quarter of the population – died from starvation, exhaustion, execution or lack of medical care as a result of the communist “utopia” experiment. Khieu Samphan, 83, known as “Mr Clean” for his reported incorruptibility, and Nuon Chea, 88, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologue, were both charged with crimes against humanity, homicide, torture, genocide and religious persecution, all committed during a regime that forced Cambodia into “a state of terror”, according to the tribunal’s chief judge Nil Nonn." The tribunal is the so-called "Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia" (ECCC) which represents a hybrid model of International Criminal Justice. Instead of an international criminal tribunal it's a cambodian court that receives international assistance from the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials (UNAKRT). "In 1997, the government requested the United Nations (UN) to assist in establishing a trial to prosecute the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge. In 2001, the Cambodian National Assembly passed a law to create a court to try serious crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime 1975-1979. This court is called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (Extraordinary Chambers or ECCC). The government of Cambodia insisted that, for the sake of the Cambodian people, the trial must be held in Cambodia using Cambodian staff and judges together with foreign personnel. Cambodia invited international participation due to the weakness of the Cambodian legal system and the international nature of the crimes, and to help in meeting international standards of justice. An agreement with the UN was ultimately reached in June 2003 detailing how the international community will assist and participate in the Extraordinary Chambers. This special new court was created by the government and the UN but it will be independent of them. It is a Cambodian court with international participation that will apply international standards." Why was this model chosen? the website from ECCC tells us that "the hybrid tribunal model is seen as a way to provide full national involvement in the trials while at the same time ensuring that international standards are met. Unlike tribunals for Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, these trials are not removed from the place where the crimes occurred. They are held in Cambodia, conducted mainly in Khmer, open to participation by Cambodian people and reported via local television, radio and newspapers" "The tribunal, launched in 2006 and once heralded as a great opportunity for Cambodia to confront its bloody past, has been bogged down by allegations of corruption and incompetence, spending up to the present day some $200m to convict only one defendant: the Khmer Rouge prison director Kaing Guek Eav, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011. Illness and death have prevented other defendants from standing trial. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who both face an upcoming genocide trial, originally shared the dock with Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, who died in March, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the social affairs minister, who has dementia and was declared unfit for trial in 2012. The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998. Despite the problems that have plagued the court, Lars Olsen, the court’s spokesman, called the verdict “a historic day” for both the people and legal system of Cambodia. “The victims have waited 35 years for legal accountability, and now that the tribunal has rendered a judgment, it is a clear milestone.” Here a link to a video about the ECCC: ECCC website: UNAKRT website: You can find more information in this article: Michelle CASWELL. ¨Khmer Rouge archives: accountability, truth and memory in Cambodia¨. Archival science, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2010)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Spain. Why Transparency when you can have Opacity instead?

Spain has been in the last few months the star in a number of cases that have highlighted the difficulties in abandoning a traditional culture of secrecy and embracing the kind of transparency and freedom of information that we associate with democracies. It started in September 2013 with the announcement that the the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
 would look at the measures taken by Spain and “analyze in particular issues related to truth, justice, reparation and memory for victims of enforced disappearances.”

The announcement came the day after an Argentinean judge issued international arrest warrants for four former mid-level officers who are accused of torturing Spaniards during the later years of Franco’s dictatorship. The Buenos Aires court opened an investigation into the crimes based on the universal justice doctrine after the victims and their families filed a lawsuit in 2010.

In October 2013, the spanish conservative government was rebuked by the UN Panel: "UN envoys Jasminka Dzumhur and Ariel Dulitzky informed Spain’s government that it should “take on its responsibility” and draw up “a national plan to search for the missing,” revoke the 1977 Amnesty Law and pave the way for cases of forced disappearance to be judged in the courts. The UN group reminded Spain that such crimes have no statute of limitations and called for the state to meet its “international obligations,” and to carry through to court the 114,000 counts of forced disappearance listed in suspended High Court Judge Baltasar Garzón’s 2008 universal justice suit. The envoys expressed disappointment that no such investigation is currently underway and that judges habitually decline to visit mass graves when informed of their discovery. They also insisted that Spain provide “every legal assistance” to investigations which are opened in other countries, such as has recently been the case in Argentina, and to embrace the concept of universal justice; Spain restricted its own judicial remit solely to cases involving Spanish nationals in 2009. The search for those who were arrested and executed by the Franco regime should not be seen as “a task to be carried out by families but an obligation of the Spanish state,” the envoys concluded. As a starting point, the UN recommended adopting Gárzon’s proposal that “the greatest institutional and financial aid” be afforded to the families of victims. Dzumhur and Dulitzky also noted that the level of official support depends entirely on which party is governing a region. The experts visited Madrid, Catalonia, Andalusia and the Basque Country and found that in some “the authorities assume responsibility for exhumations” while in others they are “completely oblivious” to the matter. In the same vein, the envoys criticized the “resistance” at institutional level over declassifying certain documents and the obstacles thrown up when families attempt to access essential information. “It depends entirely on the will of the individual public employee; we propose a law governing access to information that guarantees the right to know the truth.”

Far from moving in this direction, the spanish government moved to impulse in February 2014 a swift legal reform that limited the power of spanish judges to pursue human right violations beyond the spanish border based on the concept of Universal Justice: "Spain's MPs voted on Tuesday to push forward with a bill that limits the power of Spanish judges to pursue criminal cases outside the country, a move that human rights organisations said would end Spain's leading role as an enforcer of international justice. Last month, the ruling People's party (PP) tabled a fast-track legal change to curb the use of universal jurisdiction, a provision in international law that allows judges to try cases of human rights abuses committed in other countries. Since being adopted into Spanish law nearly two decades ago, the doctrine has allowed Spanish judges to reach beyond their borders and investigate serious human rights abuses in countries such as Argentina, Rwanda and Guatemala."

To complete this dismal panorama, the government blocked in Parliament the initiative to open the access to the historical archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (that have been subjected to security classification since 2010) and military files from 1936 to 1968 which are still classified

This has led "El Pais" to speak about "Why Top Secret in Spain is forever": "British historians have had their chance to stick their noses into what were once the most top secret records from the Falklands War (1982). The latest disclosure was a ream of private papers kept by the recently deceased former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, which reveals dissent among Conservatives over the war. But Spanish historians are not allowed the slightest peek at documents pertaining to significantly older military conflicts, such as the Ifni conflict (1957-58) or the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). All this classified information is still kept under lock and key in military archives, where access is intermittent and arbitrary. Former Defense Minister Carme Chacón, of the Socialist Party, tried to partly redress this lack of transparency by proposing to declassify 10,000 records of events that took place between 1936 and 1968, and which no longer posed a threat to the security of the state. These included documents about concentration camps and work battalions created by the Franco regime right after winning the Civil War; government policy on the Spanish protectorate in Morocco; projects for weapons manufacturing prior to 1968; operations in the former Spanish province of Sidi Ifni in North Africa; and finding crews for Italian and German war ships at Spanish ports during WWII. But her initiative never reached the Cabinet. General elections held in November 2011 handed power over to the conservative Popular Party (PP), although sources in the former Defense Ministry team say that "internal work was already completed" before that, and that the delay getting the project approved was just a problem of "scheduling." This timid attempt at greater historical transparency dissolved completely under the current Popular Party government."