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Canada's first war crimes conviction

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3 June 2009 10:13

There was some important news from Canada recently — it achieved its first successful conviction under its war crimes legislation. Désiré Munyaneza was charged with seven counts related to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was convicted on all counts.

It's a significant development because there has been a perception in some parts of Australia and other countries that it was too hard or impossible to get convictions in common law countries in war crimes trials.

When it comes to war crimes, Australia and Canada followed near identical paths from the mid 1980s when both countries discovered large numbers of Nazi war crimes suspects living within their borders. Investigations units were established, and charges laid in three cases in Australia and four in Canada. After a long drawn out process no convictions resulted in either country. 

But following this failure the approach taken by the two countries diverged dramatically. Australia shut down its war crimes unit, while Canada — following a period of re-evaluation — reinvigorated its program and widened its scope to include the increasingly more serious matter of modern war criminals.

Whereas Australia's war crimes experts dispersed around the world, Canada's remained at home and helped build what is now the world's leading domestic war crimes unit. Australia implemented screening for war criminals in 2002-03 but as I argued in a policy brief released earlier this year there are several reasons to believe many modern war crimes suspects have slipped through border checks (as they continue to do in Canada, despite their impressive screening procedures).

Australia's official policy is still to seek prosecution of war crimes suspects. In reality, after the failure of the Nazi trials, we avoid them and not a single trial has been initiated since then. Australia has still never successfully prosecuted, extradited or revoked the citizenship of a single war criminal.

The Canadian prosecution should signal to officials in Canberra that modern day war crimes trials are possible in countries like Australia. One of the biggest obstacles faced in the Nazi trials was the time lapse between the alleged events and the trials — witnesses were frail and their memories fading. Modern war crimes trials can avoid this problem provided they too aren't left until the last possible opportunity.

The ALP National Platform and Constitution recognises the problem with Australia's current approach to war crimes:

There are major gaps in Australia’s domestic laws that allow such accused criminals to enter and live here without fear of prosecution. Labor is committed to meeting Australia’s international human rights obligations by closing these loopholes and Labor will review investigatory resources to ensure that any perpetrators found in Australia can be brought to justice.  

That review is worth having because as governments around the world are increasingly realising the international criminal courts and tribunals can't do all the work and the rhetoric about ending impunity rings hollow when suspects can live freely within your borders.

Photo by Flickr user jsdart, used under a Creative Commons licence. 

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