UN Officials Discuss Justice in Sudan, Rwanda

UN Officials Discuss Justice in Sudan, Rwanda

UN officials Alfred Orono (left) and Brian Kelly speak at the law school.

A spokesperson for the UN Mission in the Sudan and an appeals prosecutor who works to bring justice after the Rwandan genocide explain some of the impacts of international legal proceedings.

There are stories of survival that will appear so incredible to some people, but I know it personally.

Last week, a day after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir offered a truce in Darfur, an overture viewed skeptically in many quarters, two United Nations officials with extensive experience in human rights issues and Africa spoke on campus at the invitation of the Burkle Center. The UCLA School of Law's International Human Rights Program cosponsored the talk on Nov. 13, 2008.

In July, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) called for an arrest warrant to be issued for al-Bashir on charges including genocide and war crimes in the western Darfur region of Sudan. The near prospect of an ICC decision on the warrant led to the ceasefire offer, according to Sudanese rebels and other observers.

"The impact of the ICC process has galvanized the government in Khartoum to seek, shall we say, a higher ground—to make efforts to solve issues internally that previously it had ignored," said Brian Kelly, spokesperson for the UN Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS), which monitors compliance with the 2005 peace agreement that ended Sudan's protracted civil war between north and south. In recent weeks that accord again has appeared fragile.

Kelly said he would "wait the further outcome" of the Darfur ceasefire offer. New fighting broke out this week, with the government and rebels pointing fingers at each another. Meanwhile, UN Security Council permanent members have been considering a plan that would suspend al-Bashir's prosecution if Sudan adhered to a truce. Neither the Bush administration nor U.S. President-Elect Obama has taken a position on the plan.

"If the North-South agreement falls apart, then everything falls apart," Kelly said as part of a discussion of the ICC pressure on al-Bashir. He suggested that the international community would have to consider the relative importance of peace in Sudan and accountability for the country's alleged war criminals.

Peace and Justice

By contrast, Alfred Orono, a criminal lawyer for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the second speaker at last week's event, described legal justice in that post-conflict environment as contributing to the peace.

Orono works to ensure justice for perpetrators of the 1994 genocide at the appeals phase of the ICTR process. Earlier this year, his legal team was able to increase the jail sentence of Athanase Seromba—a former Rwandan priest who ordered his own church bulldozed on top of more than 1,500 Tutsis who had sought refuge inside—to life in prison. Seromba initially had received a 15-year sentence.

"As a prosecutor you are not supposed to get angry, but at times you cannot resist the temptation to believe that justice has not been done," Orono said. "So when that file was given to us, I was really very happy."

At the age of 11, Orono in 1979 served as an interpreter for the force that would overthrow the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Born and raised in Uganda, Orono became a child soldier, a refugee, and finally a Canadian citizen after coming under UN protection in Kenya. In Canada he studied criminology and law.

"When I read a witness statement, I have this ability to see beyond the mere statement. I can see the individual," Orono said at the event, on his first visit to the United States. "There are stories of survival that will appear so incredible to some people, but I know it personally."

Orono said he believes "profoundly" in the United Nations, the organization founded on the belief that "the world is worth protecting and saving." He urged critics of the organization to put its failures in a context of self-examination.

"We are the United Nations…," he said. "The weaknesses of the organization are our weaknesses. The strengths are our strengths."

Published: Thursday, November 13, 2008