World civilisation has travelled a long tortuous journey to address the culture of impunity and deliver justice for crimes against humanity which encompasses war crimes. In the 1970s, rulers committing gross violation of human rights could hide behind theories of national sovereignty. It was reflected in 1971 in responses of foreign countries to the Bangladesh genocide although the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 proclaimed universal declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes of Genocide, which were essentially interlinked. According to International law, they fall under universal jurisdiction.
In the aftermath of World War II, in 1946, the International Military Tribunal (IMT), popularly known as the Nuremberg trial and the Tokyo trial, was set up to try “senior Nazi political and military leaders” and “Far Eastern war criminals.” Currently war crimes trials are going on to try alleged war criminals of Cambodia and former Yogoslavia (1993-); trials in Rwanda, Argentina and East Timor are in progress. Then finally in 1998 the International Criminal Court (ICC) adopted the Rome Statute on crimes against humanity.
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'The Killing Ground' by Rofiqun Nabi Collected
From such vantage points of international developments in war crimes trial, let us now focus on the Bangladesh scene. Immediately after Bangabandhu’s return in January 1972, legal instruments for trying local collaborators -- who directly and indirectly took part in killing mass people during the Liberation War -- were put into effect. General amnesty, however, was declared for them in 1974 but judicial process, nonetheless, continued against some ten thousand collaborators specifically accused of grievous crimes.
Serious attempts were also taken through UN sources, tripartite meetings (between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan), and finally through the Simla agreement for the trial of 195 Pakistan Army personnel who were directly involved in the genocide campaign. However, due to bipolar global realities the issue was swept under the carpet with Pakistan's insistence on holding their trial by its own government, which, it must be said, was never pursued.
Meanwhile, based on consultation with jurists involved with Nuremberg trial, the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973 was promulgated by our Parliament. However, following the assassination of Bangabandhu in August 1975 and imposition of martial law, a total culture of impunity was imposed. On December 30, 1975, Collaborators Act was annulled and all of them were released from prison. Worse still, religious parties involved in acts of genocide were legalised and known war criminals were sworn in as ministers. The issue was revived only in 1992 after a civil society movement led by Jahanara Imam, mother of a martyred freedom fighter.
After four decades, war crimes trial started on March 25, 2010 with the formation of Tribunal I and subsequently Tribunal II by invoking the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973. Unlike the tribunals in Cambodia, former Yogoslavia and Rwanda, they are not a hybrid or UN-sponsored judicial process but a fully domestic judicial mechanism. It was criticised for not being of international standard. First, most countries adopted acts and procedures and adjusted them with the basic provisions of the Rome Statute locally. Bangladesh was no exception and the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973 rather complies with the Rome Statute in principle as well as in procedural matters. It was also accused of being politically motivated, but the trials pressed charges against those who were directly involved in heinous crimes against humanity in 1971.
Unfortunately enough, the government faced tremendous opposition for initiating the trial both inside and outside the country. Blockades were imposed and mindless killings were carried out inside the country while foreign lobbyists were hired at exorbitant prices and a global campaign was launched.
In the face of such oppositions, the judicial system stood firm. Though relevant international laws for criminal courts are not evidence-based, the tribunals’ investigation and prosecution team worked relentlessly to submit evidences and eye witness reports to prove beyond all doubt that the accused were perpetrators of war crimes. In the last six years the tribunals have declared judgment on 27 such cases and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court has disposed of 11 cases. Withstanding all international and national pressures, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made sure that the final verdicts were carried out.
What can be more gratifying than this that those who planned and organised genocide in 1971 could be indicted and that the culture of impunity regarding war crimes, maybe, is coming to an end.
The writer is a trustee of Liberation War Museum.