Meeting Del Ponte

Nearly three years ago, I was fortunate enough to interview the former Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY and then Swiss Ambassador to Argentina Carla del Ponte. As the last of the ICTY indictees is arrested and a period of reflection on the legacy of the tribunal’s work emerges, it has been fascinating for me to revisit the judgements I heard from Ms. Del Ponte herself, which only now I feel relaxed enough to post here after her ambassadorial post ended earlier this year. 

On a hot summer day when on holiday in Russia, the news of the day was the publication of Carla Del Ponte’s controversial memoirs of her time at The Hague. A friend of mine nudged me, asking if I had heard of her and I shook my head. He urged me to find out who she was and read a few excerpts of her book, telling me this would change my understanding of Balkan politics. I returned to Argentina in early August and did follow up on my friend’s suggestion. I began to research her life and tried to find further excerpts from her book. But in doing so, I stumbled upon a startling fact; she had been appointed Swiss Ambassador to Argentina in March. I was determined to meet her.

And so in September I began to write a letter to her. As many as four curious people edited it, eager to play their part in securing the interview. A friend of mine dropped the letter off at the Swiss embassy and the wait began. Six weeks later, I opened my email to find a reply from Carla Del Ponte’s secretary, informing me that the Ambassador had granted me an interview. I was to be at the Swiss Embassy at 11.00 am on the 3rd of November. I was stunned.

Armed with over a dozen carefully tailored questions, I arrived at the Swiss Embassy on that very day. I waited for half an hour before the secretary asked me to follow her, first entering through a metal detector. She led me to another floor and opened the Ambassador’s office with her own pair of keys. As the door swung open, Carla Del Ponte was bent over her desk. Now aware of my arrival, she greeted me and offered a seat. She took out my letter and briefly revised it out loud, as if to confirm I was indeed the person who had written it, and inquired if I spoke her native Italian, perhaps so as to ease the chore that I had asked of her. I apologised for not being able to do so, and promptly pulled out my questions and began, my knees still shaking.

I first asked her about the arrest of Karadzic over the summer and whether it suggested that Serbia was finally cooperating with the ICTY and thus deserved to apply for EU membership. She agreed, claiming that the resignation of Kostunica as Prime Minister earlier in the year had paved the way for Boris Tadic’s pro-western government to have a free hand in chasing war criminals. In fact, she was confident that given Tadic’s willingness to find war criminals, the ICTY’s two remaining fugitives, Hadzic and Mladic, would be found by Christmas. If this was not the case, she said the ICTY’s mandate should be extended by the Security Council.

My next questions concerned how successful she judged her eight years as Chief Prosecutor at the ICTY to have been, during which 87 of the 91 indictees she sought were found, but not Karadzic and Mladic, her two top targets. I was unsurprised to hear from her that those years were a “tremendous success,” despite the failure to capture the two men. I then asked if the extradition of Milosevic to The Hague in 2001 was the greatest achievement of her mandate and she agreed.

We then moved on to the questions that I thought she would most hotly dispute, concerning the trial of Milosevic. And so it proved. I suggested the trial was deeply flawed, citing the drastic changes to the Kosovo indictment and dubious testimonies of several of the prosecution’s witnesses. Time and again she rebuffed my claims, insisting the accused was granted a fair trial. I then wondered if the ICJ’s decision to clear Serbia of responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre last year undermined the case she had put forth at the trial, accusing Milosevic of masterminding the massacre. She denied this, saying the ICJ works independently of the ICTY and the ruling concerned Serbia itself, not Milosevic. But she did agree that there were lessons to be learned from the trial, pointing out that never again must the accused be allowed to defend himself without assistance, something that unfortunately hadn’t been learnt in time for the Karadzic trial she said. She also underlined that it if a war crime such as Srebrenica was proven at one ICTY trial, it was unnecessary to have to present different evidence for the same crime at another trial.

My following questions revolved around the accusation of the ICTY being a so-called kangaroo court that is capable of convicting Serb and Croat war criminals, but not Bosniak and Kosovar ones such as Naser Oric and Ramush Haradinaj. Ms. Del Ponte strongly disputed the charge, as I had expected, stating that if an indictee were ever not brought to justice, it was solely because the evidence presented was either inconclusive or insufficient, as occurred with Oric and Haradinaj. She then dismissed the idea of her protecting Western interests by dropping proposed charges against NATO for indiscriminate bombings during the Kosovo campaign, again claiming a lack of adequate evidence in order to press for a trial. The theme of no evidence equating to no charges again cropped up when I pressed for why the revelations of KLA harvesting and trafficking of the organs of Serbs prisoners in northern Albania emerged in her book five years after she became aware of them. Had the UN mission in Kosovo, NATO and Kosovar government been a little more cooperative and provided her with further evidence, she is convinced a full-scale investigation would have been mounted.

I could not have asked for a better interview. Not only was Ms. Del Ponte kind enough to answer all of my questions, but she also astonished me by signing a late draft of the English edition of her book, soon to be published in January. The ICTY will with hindsight be seen as a major development in the history of international law and justice. Though accused of many things, it was able to deliver justice on a considerably effective scale and help encourage the changes in the Balkans witnessed over a decade since. With a judicial career as prolific, wide-ranging and colourful as hers, Carla del Ponte has much to be remembered for, as The Hunt: Me and the War Criminals amply shows. But it is her time as Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY which will secure her name in the annals of international justice.

Published in July 2011

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