The recent visit to Bangladesh of Stephen Rapp, US War Crimes Ambassador-at-large may well turn out to be a game changer in terms of the country's International Crimes Tribunal.
Till now the government has simply been burying its head in the sand in terms of the arguments relating to international standards. Its ministers have claimed countless times that the trials will meet these standards, whilst ignoring patent deficiencies in the law and procedure. Rapp's visit may well have forced the government to take the matter of standards seriously, and make the necessary changes
Of course whether the government/Tribunal does so, only time will tell. Rapp has however given wise advice in suggesting that the necessary changes can be made by amending the Rules of Procedure (it is not clear that all the necessary changes can be made by changing just the procedures, but it is a very good idea to try to do so without amending the 1973 Act): the government can continue to claim that the 1973 Act itself was adequate, and it was just the Tribunal's procedures that need changing (important it seems for the government's PR), and also the changes can be made quickly (by the Tribunal members themselves, without any parliamentary or, technically, governmental interference).
The law minister is quoted in the media as saying that the changes proposed are 'minor' - but some quite significant changes are being suggested. Hearings questioning jurisdiction of the tribunal, appeals against interlocutory Tribunal decisions, presence of lawyers during questioning of suspects, disclosure of exculpatory evidence by the prosecutor etc will bring about quite substantial changes to the current process, and also - in some cases - quite a change to the legal culture.
It may not be straightforward to bring these into effect - but it is in the long term interest of the government and those seeking a credible process that it does make them.
Here are some links to articles I have written about the Rapp visit:
- US Ambassador for War Crimes Due in Dhaka, 29 Nov 2010, New Age
- Bangladesh responds to criticism of its plans to try war criminals, 16 Dec 2010, Economist Magazine
- Seeking Justice that Bangladesh can take pride in, 10 Jan 2011, New Age
- US envoy to advise rule changes, 14 Jan 2011, New Age
- Rapp to advise minister about genocide definition, 21 Jan 2011, New Age. The full interview I did with Stephen Rapp was published in New Age's magazine Extra, but it is not accessible on the website. You can however download the interview here.
In addition, here is the transcript, released by the US embassy, of the press conference Rapp gave on 13 January 2011