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Iowa's Stephen Rapp, U.S. war crimes envoy, continues international crusade

January 4, 2011

1-3-2011 Des Moines Register

Stephen Rapp will return to The Hague next month to witness closing arguments in the historic war crimes trial against Charles Taylor. But these days, helping to bring the notorious warlord and former Liberian president to justice is just one critical goal among many.

A former U.S. attorney from Iowa, Rapp was until last year the lead prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. But 15 months ago he traded in his black robe to help the U.S. State Department pursue perpetrators of large-scale violence around the globe, from central Africa, to Burma and Sri Lanka, to Cambodia, Chad and Bangladesh.

"I am still doing everything I can to make justice possible," said the nation's ambassador for war crimes, who returned to Iowa to celebrate the holidays with his family.

A passionate believer in bringing the world's worst killers to justice, Rapp resigned as U.S. attorney in 2001 to move to Arusha, Tanzania, to prosecute those responsible for bloodshed in Rwanda. In 2007, he headed to The Hague to take on Taylor, whom some historians rank as one of history's top killers. He's blamed for as many as 1.2 million deaths in western Africa.

Here are some of the ambassador's most recent efforts since assuming his new job in 2009:

Democratic Republic of Congo

Rapp has made five trips to this nation since leaving his previous job.

He tried to get the United Nations, other countries and the government to bring to justice those responsible for the targeted killings of 1,400 civilians and another 7,500 rapes during armed conflict between government forces and the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, also known as the FDLR.

At least three people have been brought to trial, but Jean Bosco Ntaganda, a former Rwandan rebel and senior military commander, has yet to be arrested. Ntaganda led assaults on the FDLR while backed by U.N. peacekeepers and is now wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes tied to the recruitment of child soldiers, civilian massacres and illegal mining operations.

Thousands of youths have been abducted this year in eastern Congo by officers loyal to Ntaganda, according to Human Rights Watch.

Kyrgyzstan

Rapp has worked to build support for an international inquiry into war crimes stemming from interethnic violence last summer.

The clash near the southern city of Osh, which followed the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, resulted in the deaths of 400 Uzbeks and Kyrgz men, women and children.

Rapp describes the post-Soviet country as a "very difficult part of the world," but he said he is hopeful progress is being made to prevent greater upheaval in the region.

An independent commission has been established to look into differing accounts of who was responsible for the death and destruction, he said. A report is expected this spring.
 
Taylor trial

Rapp continues to raise money for the Taylor trial, traveling to five foreign capitals to make the case for its successful conclusion despite dire funding problems.

A verdict in the years-long case involving 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity is expected this summer, followed by appeals.

Congress agreed to chip in another $7.5 million in 2010 to help fund the special court, which is seated at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Another $4.5 million is being sought for 2011.

Rapp said the trial will wind up costing "north of $230 million" by the time it is over. But he said it is important that the world pursue justice regardless of cost to deter future war crimes.

With no prospect of additional money beyond what has been committed thus far, Rapp said he is seeking a special $12 million grant from the United Nations to carry the court through the final verdict and appeal.

Other efforts

Rapp said he has also worked to gain support for International Criminal Court prosecutions in Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic, Sudan and Kenya.

Last year he called on Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes by government troops and the Tamil Tigers during the final months of that country's 25-year civil war.
 
Between 7,000 and 20,000 Sri Lankan civilians were killed between January and May, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. Both sides have been blamed for mass killings, using child soldiers and enlisting suicide bombers.

Rapp also has pushed Serbian officials to do more to arrest Ratko Mladic, the commander responsible for genocide at Srebrenica in 1995, and Croatia for documents needed to prosecute Croatian generals by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague.

In spite of a grueling travel schedule, Rapp said he remains optimistic and enthusiastic about his post, "even in situations where it is very difficult to succeed." He said he has no idea what he will be doing a year from now, but he plans to continue helping the cause of international justice.