HAY-ON-WYE – Luis Moreno-Ocampo is a man of quiet and unassuming dignity. He is now mid-way through the first term in a job new to the world. He is the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in the Hague. He spoke to several hundred folks at the Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales last month. I was a rapt member of the audience.
Moreno-Ocampo was not looking for work as the world’s first prosecutor when his phone rang. He was practicing law in Argentina and preparing to serve as a visiting professor at the Harvard Law School. Among his early triumphs as a lawyer? Prosecution of generals in Argentina after power was restored to civilian control. He is a rule of law man, plain and simple.
I had hoped to see the International Criminal Court in action a week or so before I saw Moreno-Ocampo speak. I flew from New York to Amsterdam and planned a day’s layover so that I could get a close look at the doings of a court I consider to be the most exciting of any in the world.
Mornings are quiet in Amsterdam. At 10 a.m., I am almost alone walking along the streets of the Hague. The place has the feel of Wall Street on Sunday morning. Signs on the shops relay that business does not typically begin until later.
It takes some time to find the Palace of Justice. The trains were easy enough to navigate, but the map of the city is virtually useless. The streets interweave in patterns intelligible only to Medusa. At last it comes into view.
To the right of the Palace flickers a small flame. It is the World Peace Flame, and it is surrounded by stones sent from each of the nations of the world. This tiny monument seems almost an embarrassment when contrasted to the sumptuousness of the court’s home. Perhaps that is fitting: This tiny flame stands against a world of violence and chaos. How like the flame that alit in Jerusalem millennia ago is this flame?
There is no activity at the court. I am surprised. I cannot say that I expected to see ar criminals arraigned, but I am used to courthouses that whir with chaos. The International Criminal Court makes our federal courthouses look like hothouses of justice.
I try to imagine Moreno-Ocampo in the ornate courtroom of the Palace, bank of robed judges facing him. His easy grace makes this act of imagination simple. He is a rule of law man. His office is mandated to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Not all nations are signatories to the treaty creating the court, so jurisdiction is always an issue. And he must first satisfy himself that a signatory cannot, or will not, act before he launches a prosecution.
An audience member at his lecture asks him whether he will ever prosecute former President Bush for war crimes. The question is met with murmuring approbation from the audience. He sighs. His job is not to make political judgments, he explains. No one has referred Mr. Bush for prosecution. But even if someone had, a steady realism animates the world’s first prosecutors: His resources are limited, and he must rank issues and select what needs most doing. Just now, he is preoccupied with Darfur, the Sudan and the fate of millions who will die as a result of calculated acts of indifference.
The audience hears this, and wants more dramatic action. But Moreno-Ocampo patiently explains that the creation of international institutions and the development of institutions capable of giving the giving the law teeth takes time. I watch him struggle with these issues and I am overcome with admiration for the man and his courage. It is a marvel, it seems to me, that there is an International Criminal Court at all. The next challenge is to learn to use it.