New Standards for Documentation of Human Rights Violations to End Impunity

As his visiting senior fellowship is slowly coming to an end, Distinguished Fellow Amb. Stephen Rapp presented to colleagues on Tuesday 30 August the work he has done during his six-month stay at The Hague Institute. This appointment is part of a one-year fellowship funded by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, during which Amb. Rapp has been working to establish new standards for the documentation of human rights violations.

As former Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Amb. Rapp has extensive knowledge of the international justice system. “I believe that a justice process that is properly managed, with honest and independent courts, does have an effect on crime. There’s a debate about deterrence, and [an effective criminal justice system] doesn’t deter everybody, but it certainly deters a lot of folks,” Rapp said during his presentation.

Since the First Geneva Convention in 1864, the international community has been building principles for the conduct of war to protect innocent civilians and limit physical destruction and loss of life. Additionally, international courts such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague and institutions like the United Nations Security Council were meant to diminish threats to international peace and security and to hold accountable those who breach humanitarian law. Despite important advances, the system remains flawed. In the case of Syria, for example, an ICC investigation of human rights abuses was blocked by vetoes from Russia and China. Yet, said Amb. Rapp, there always remains “a great hope and expectation for justice.” The path to accountability is challenging, but it is essential that gross violations of human rights cannot be committed with impunity.

For victims it’s unthinkable that there’s no justice.

The documentation of human rights abuses in a way that can be used in potential international criminal proceedings will make it more likely that individuals who commit these crimes be held accountable. One of Amb. Rapp’s objectives as a Distinguished Fellow is to develop a manual that sets standards for a rigorous process of documentation, which links to The Hague Institute’s From Fact-Finding to Evidence project. This manual could be used e.g. by independent Commissions of Inquiry in Geneva that investigate violations of international human rights law, thereby improving co-operability between Commissions of Inquiry and the ICC in case hard evidence emerges that makes it possible for individuals to be prosecuted for these crimes. Thus says Rapp: “We have to build the expectation that justice is coming.”

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