David Crane, the founding prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, who investigated, indicted, and prosecuted the first sitting head-of-state for war crimes and crimes against humanity, spoke at the University of Waterloo recently on the topic of “Justice as a Solution to War: Facing down Terrorists, Warlords and Thugs.” In his presentation, Crane recounted the history of the development of modern international criminal law, describing three “waves” of accountability – the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal; the tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia; and more recently, other mechanisms that have formed to document and hold human rights violators accountable for abuses in Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, and other countries.

Crane lamented the threats to international justice that have emerged in the last several years with the rise of nationalism, describing the current international legal architecture as one that is “cracking, wobbling and shaking” in the face of inward looking global populist leaders. Yet he argued, international justice is a core attribute of peace, noting that unresolved atrocities are “open sores, wounds that never heal.” The world community therefore has the choice to allow impunity to fester, thereby creating conditions leading to more violence and war, or instead hold mass perpetrators accountable to the rule of law and foster peace. He noted that since the Special Court in Sierra Leone held those most responsible for the war crimes accountable, Sierra Leone has held three national elections, with power shifting from one political party to another, without a shot being fired. This was a remarkable achievement given the scale and scope of the violence of the civil war.  Crane’s talk, held on Remembrance Day, was a sobering reminder that threats to peace continue today in the form of political leaders who undermine law. He concluded his comments by reminding us that “the rule of law is stronger than the gun.”

Written by Lowell Ewert, Associate Professor, Peace and Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College