Will Draw on Experience and Breezy Flair
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — An American judge will preside when the first international war crimes tribunal since World War II opens Tuesday, bringing the forthrightness of a Texan and the expertise of a civil rights veteran to the proceedings. Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, a former U.S. federal judge who worked as a civil rights lawyer in 1960s, will lead a three-judge panel trying a Bosnian Serb prison guard for murder, rape and torture. The trial marks the world community’s first attempt to try violations of international humanitarian law.
Previous war crimes trials were set up by victorious nations, like the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II. But the tribunal was put together by the U.N. Security Council in response to international outrage at atrocities committed in Bosnia.
One of two women among the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal’s 11 judges, McDonald, 53, plans to draw on her background as a lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during the U.S. civil rights movement. That gave her experience with new laws — something she’ll need in The Hague.
Rape will be tried as a war crime for the first time at The Hague. The 1948 Paris Genocide Convention will be put to the test for the first time. And the tribunal also will prosecute breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions forbidding mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilians.
McDonald compares the situation to working with the newly drafted Civil Rights Act of 1964. “There was little precedent,” she says, “so we had to borrow precedent. That is what we’re doing here, we’re borrowing precedent from other legal systems.” In the long run, McDonald hopes, the tribunal will pave the way for a permanent international war crimes court. “These international rules of human behavior have not been enforced for 50 years,” she says. “It would be a real void if it wasn’t carried on, because I’m afraid that inevitably there are going to be conflicts. They are not going to stop with the former Yugoslavia.”
In 1979, McDonald became a U.S. federal judge in Houston, Texas, appointed by then-President Jimmy Carter. Nine years later, tiring of her 1,000-case-a-year docket, she returned to private practice specializing in employment discrimination cases. She started teaching at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, in 1991. And she was going to take a one-year post at Texas Southern University when a call from an old friend changed her course.
State Department legal adviser Conrad Harper, a former colleague at the NAACP, asked if she wanted to be the U.S. nominee for the tribunal. Who could say no?
On the bench in The Hague, McDonald displays a breezy Texas style that mixes directness with humor. At a recent evidence hearing, a witness described a Bosnian village as being “a few clicks up the road.” The Swedish soldier paused. “Do you know what a click is, Ma’am? It’s a kilometer.”
“Sir, I haven’t been in Europe too long,” McDonald answered. “I don’t even know what a kilometer is.” She probably will shortly.
Key Facts about the War Crimes Tribunal
War Crimes Tribunal May Pale Compared to Nuremberg
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia from the United Nations
Coalition for International Justice
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