Editorial - June/July 2016

James Lewis

Martin Luther King put it well when he said ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is providing further evidence of this.
The author of our cover feature, The Guardian’s world affairs editor Julian Borger, describes it as a 23-year judicial experiment and a high point of the enforcement of international humanitarian law (‘The manhunt’, page 18).

As the first ad hoc tribunal since the Nuremberg trials, which prosecuted prominent members of the Nazi leadership who planned and carried out the Holocaust, the very existence of the ICTY has been historically momentous. More significantly for the future enforcement of international justice, the ICTY, along with the tribunal for Rwanda, paved the way for the creation in 2002 of the International Criminal Court.

The verdict delivered on the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in March for charges of genocide and crimes against humanity has been the ICTY’s most important ruling to date. Though the sentence – 40 years in prison – has disappointed some commentators, the ICTY has nevertheless shown that an individual’s senior position can no longer protect them from prosecution. ‘The tribunal’s most important legacy is reinforcing the principle that accountability must always trump impunity for international crimes,’ says Mark Ellis, the IBA’s executive director.

This theme of accountability versus impunity resonates in other areas covered in the features and columns of this edition. For example, the leak of 11.5 million documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca – no doubt including those for routine arrangements most lawyers would consider unremarkable – has revealed the extent to which those in senior positions throughout the world have abused power with impunity, believing they would not be held accountable.

The lifting of the lid on those hitherto confidential dealings has given further impetus to reform by shining light into the darker corners of the financial world (‘The Panama Papers: a tipping point for reform’, page 47). Such unjust behaviour has a serious impact on western economies, but, for developing countries, where it costs $1tn annually, the consequences are fatal. As recently as last September, the international community committed to tackling poverty by signing up to the sustainable development goals at the UN General Assembly, and one of the goals is cutting illicit financial flows by 2030.
If these goals are to be achieved, reform must happen now – as the Panama Papers show, it’s long overdue.