After nine years as prosecutor, José Luís Moreno Ocampo bade farewell to his position at the international Criminal Court (ICC) this week. In 2003, the Argentine jurist was appointed as the first public prosecutor of a court that intends on bringing justice to the world. Moreno Ocampo, in an interview with the official Dutch news service (RNW), said that he is confident that the goal of international justice has not failed, even while the United States, China and Russia still refuse to sign up for the ICC.
In the interview, Moreno Ocampo spoke to whether the ICC has been a failure, saying “No, on the contrary, all it does is show that it is something completely new. So new in fact that major countries cannot join it - dare not join it. The biggest countries protect their interests with powerful armed forces. To them, the idea that they might be investigated for war crimes is complicated. Smaller countries protect themselves with the law. South America has learned the importance of the law. That is why they use it. So it’s actually the other way around. The fact that the biggest countries dare not join proves we are a serious institution.”
Moreno Ocampo was asked whether the ICC was successful in clipping the wings of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashr, who has been indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity in light of his government’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Moreno Ocampo said that the ICC’s jurisdiction is novel, but has indeed had an effect on Bashr’s behavior and mobility. Said the grizzled Moreno Ocampo, “Enforcing the law across the world is new. Arresting a head of state is the most difficult thing. Omar al-Bashir can only travel to countries that are under no obligation to arrest him. He was unable to travel to South Africa for the inauguration of Jacob Zuma. The African Union was moved, because Malawi is opposed to the presence of Bashir. He cannot travel to Uganda. He’ll be arrested if he travels to Kenya. So he is a president on the run. The arrest of President Bashir is merely a matter of time.”
Shifting to crime committed in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, Moreno Ocampo appeared to be triumphant: “A hundred and sixty-one people were put on trial by the Yugoslavia Tribunal. Not a single one is still on the run! It took 18 years, but they were all arrested.”
The RNW interviewer asked “Is it possible that those who started a war in Iraq based on lies will never stand trial; that justice will never be passed on Guantánamo…?” Moreno Ocampo responded, “Yes that is possible. Impunity has always been the norm. So it’s quite possible that the pessimists will be proven right. .. But a lot has changed in nine years… During my time, three heads of state have been indicted. One was arrested, one died and one is still in office. The world is making progress.”
Moreno Ocampo first gained fame in the 1980s when he was a lead prosecutor of the military junta that had ruled his native Argentina during the so-called ‘Dirty War’ in which thousands of his countrymen ‘disappeared’ while in the custody of the national security apparatus. Leftists, dissidents and other opponents of the military regime died at the hands of military jailers and hitmen during the darkest days of Argentina’s history. Moreno Ocampo was successful in at least getting some of the officers at the apex of the government, including Jorge Vidal, to serve sentences in prison or house arrest.
He denies any political ambitions. “No! I will never become a politician. Never. Besides: I used to be better known in my country than I am today. I left Argentina 10 years ago. But I do feel a responsibility. I see problems such as those with the Somalian pirates or the crimes related to the drug trade in Mexico and Colombia. We need new approaches and I want to help…I think I’ll continue working as a lawyer for half my time and pro bono on cases that I find worth my while for the other half.”
In 1994, Moreno Ocampo was part of a team of jurists and experts that included former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburg who went to Guatemala to promote transparency and good governance among lawyers, human rights activists, and parliamentarians. As a finale to the visit, Moreno Ocampo and Thornburg, along with other legal experts from Spain and Latin America, witnessed Guatemala’s presidential candidates sign a document swearing to uphold the principles of democracy and transparency as the country was just emerging from fratricidal civil war. Guatemala and other Central American countries have become all the more violent and corrupt ever since, even while democratic elections are regularly held.
Organized drug traffickers, based in Colombia and Mexico, have made serious inroads in Guatemala and El Salvador, bringing mass murder, insecurity and corruption of the political system. Speaking to the region-wide drug trade, Moreno Ocampo suggested, “A cross-border approach. You cannot crack down on organized crime at national level. The president of Guatemala told me: ‘We knew that the Mexican drug cartels had arrived because they killed 300 people in two days. We cannot bring them under control. And even if we could, they would move on to the next country, Honduras.’ That is why we must tackle the issue at using a cross-border approach, including the countries which receive the drugs, the countries where the drugs are used, the countries that supply the weapons...”
Moreno Ocampo averred that policy makers and the general public are witnessing an international problem as drug traffickers increasingly conduct operations across borders, and even into the United States. The urbane Argentine said “I recently visited Mexico and met Interior Minister Francisco Blake who was killed in a car accident one week after my visit (November 2011). He told me something really important. ‘In the 1980s Mexico denied the drug problem. We thought it was a Colombian problem, that they passed through Mexico but continued on to the U.S., that was a serious problem. But now it is really difficult to end this.’”
Nodding in the direction of underlying social problems, Moreno Ocampo said of the challenge of defeating violent criminal organizations, “It is a fight against groups of organized criminals, sometimes 12-year-olds who have already killed more than 30 people, who believe they have just a few more years to live. We cannot deny the problem of organized crime. Organized crime knows no borders. It is a global problem.”