Former Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte: “I keep telling myself that justice prevails”


THE MIRROR: Mrs. Del Ponte, in your book, the world of 2021 sounds a lot like a jungle where the strongest prevail. Why that?

Del Ponte: The world still depends on the will of the strongest countries. It was only possible to establish an international criminal justice system because the United States and Russia supported it. Unfortunately, this political will has evaporated.

THE MIRROR: You managed to drag some of the worst war criminals of the 20th century to court. What impression did these men make on you?

Del Ponte: Nothing special. Unfortunately, they are just normal people. I wish I had seen them as monsters, but they are not. One thing they share is the belief that the end justifies the means.

THE MIRROR: Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is one of the men he prosecuted. When you met him, were you surprised by anything about him?

Del Ponte: The only thing that surprised me was the way he interrogated the witnesses during the trial. Many of them still saw the president in it and were empty. He even got some of them to withdraw their testimony.

THE MIRROR: Did he intimidate the witnesses?

Del Ponte: Our judges were, of course, extremely accommodating to him. “Mr. Milosevic, how are you? Did you sleep well? Do you feel well enough to answer some questions?” When I was in the room, I had in mind the thousands of victims. Milošević defended himself, which gave him the opportunity to hold his political speeches in court. After two years, we were almost at the end of the process. For myself: from Monday, I will say what needs to be said, and then came the news that Milošević had died in his cell.

THE MIRROR: Once the trials were over, did you think you understood these people a little better?

Del Ponte: We understand what led them to spread ethnic hatred. But these culprits never expressed remorse or introspection. They never understood that what they did was wrong, even though they were arrested and convicted. They presented themselves as heroes. Therefore, I was constantly in favor of long sentences, so that they would have time to acknowledge their guilt.

THE MIRROR: Was it particularly significant for you, as a woman, to prosecute these men?

Del Ponte: Not in The Hague. But he was different when he was a prosecutor in Ticino. I remember once we arrested a mobster and I had to interrogate him at the police station. When a police officer pulled a revolver out of the drawer, the mobster glanced at me and said, “Doctor, if I had known the gun, you and I would have gone to Naples as a couple.”

THE MIRROR: Write in your book that you were criticized for focusing more on Serbian criminals.

Del Ponte: Of course, because Serbs committed more crimes than Croats or Kosovars.

THE MIRROR: Is true?

Del Ponte: it is true that the international community, NATO, had evidence of the crimes committed by the Serbs and they provided it to us, which made things move faster. But it is also true that the US did not want us to examine war crimes in Kosovo, for political reasons. We had a lot of trouble investigating the UCL, the Kosovar militia, because the US slowed us down.

THE MIRROR: Did US politicians explicitly tell you not to investigate Kosovars?

Del Ponte: No, because then I could have complained in public. But Madeleine Albright, who was then Secretary of State, said to me on the phone: Carla, slowly, slowly. Be careful with (former KLA leader Ramush) Haradinaj, otherwise there will be unrest in Kosovo.

THE MIRROR: You had enough confidence in yourself to pay little attention to what world leaders expected of you.

Del Ponte: Of couse. And they also knew that when they told me to do something, I would do the opposite. And the statutes make it absolutely clear: the chief prosecutor is independent.

THE MIRROR: You were constantly exposed to political pressure. In Yugoslavia, he complained that he was not allowed to investigate NATO. In Rwanda, you could not investigate the Tutsis.

Del Ponte: International justice can only work if it is backed by political will. If this political will is lacking, you cannot do much.

THE MIRROR: How is this expressed?

Del Ponte: One never knows exactly what the motivations are for making an investigation difficult, but they were there. An example: NATO was present in Yugoslavia and could have been easily detained (Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan) Karadzic i (Ratko) Mladić, but they did not. And yet the Yugoslav Court finally succeeded anyway.

THE MIRROR: Many people thought at the time that an international criminal justice system was emerging.

Del Ponte: Yes, that’s what we thought: fantastic. The Yugoslav Court was a success, as was Rwanda, although some suspects were still at large. And then came the permanent criminal court and we thought, we’ve finally got it. There is an international jurisdiction and it will have a preventive effect. But in a few years it started to go down.

THE MIRROR: Do you have an explanation of what happened?

Del Ponte: Most have to do with Russia and the United States. It was mainly thanks to these two countries that the international justice system emerged in the first place. But as soon as these two countries lost interest in her, particularly the United States, it was a sign.

THE MIRROR: Is international justice always the justice of the powerful?

Del Ponte: For now, unfortunately that is the case. The founding of the International Criminal Court was a big step. But that alone is not enough. You also need people who represent you with confidence in themselves.

THE MIRROR: Does it depend much on who holds the position of chief prosecutor?

Del Ponte: Of couse. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who knew me from Davos, realized that he never left, that he kept digging. For this reason, those in power had to ultimately listen to me. This was the case of (former German chancellor) Gerhard Schröder. I spent some time before I could meet with him, but then he became one of my most important allies in Milošević’s arrest.

THE MIRROR: You were the target of several attacks and received numerous threats. Were you scared?

Del Ponte: Over time, I became accustomed to danger and life under police protection.

THE MIRROR: As a public prosecutor in Switzerland, you worked closely with Giovanni Falcone, the legendary Italian mafia prosecutor who was assassinated in Sicily in 1992.

Del Ponte: Two years before that attack, I was with him in Palermo to interrogate a mobster. Then Falcone invited me to go to the beach, but I wanted to take a look at the city. This saved our lives, because the mob had put a bomb in the place we had planned to visit.

THE MIRROR: In your life as a prosecutor, what was your main motivation?

Del Ponte: My focus was to get justice for the victims. The families of the victims can only be shut down when some kind of justice is restored.

THE MIRROR: The lesson many despots seem to have learned is that they only have to rule with a fist hard enough to stay in power.

Del Ponte: This makes it even more important for the chief prosecutor in The Hague to take Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to court, for example. If there was an international arrest warrant for Assad, he could no longer leave his country. This was the case with Milošević. And, of course, there was a UN commission of inquiry for Syria. If he were still chief prosecutor in The Hague, he would immediately demand access to the evidence that this commission collected against Assad. As a chief prosecutor, you have to be active. Otherwise, nothing happens.

THE MIRROR: You were part of that commission. One of the controversial issues you had to address was who had used chemical weapons in Syria.

Del Ponte: The commission did not want it made public that the rebels had also used chemical weapons. But the proof was clear.

THE MIRROR: You made it public on your own. Was it a mistake?

Del Ponte: No, it was necessary. The commission was a farce. The goal was to simulate the action, but not demand accountability from those who had committed crimes, be it Assad or the rebels.

THE MIRROR: Could the war in Syria have been prevented?

Del Ponte: It might not have been avoided, but it could have been contained. For this, however, the US and the EU would have been diplomatically involved much earlier. When the situation in Ukraine increased, European diplomats immediately traveled to Kiev. Ultimately, a major conflagration was avoided. But no one was interested enough in Syria.

THE MIRROR: Is the UN still needed?

Del Ponte: Absolutely. Finally, he should only be given the power given to him in his letter. The Security Council is paralyzed. Just look at the example of Israel and Palestine. Security Council members get together and talk, but do nothing. This is typical.

THE MIRROR: You and the UN are essentially polar opposites. The UN wants to talk, but you want to act.

Del Ponte: That’s why I’ve never liked being there. My office was empty. There wasn’t even a piece of paper on the desk. The problem is that all countries have the right to send officials to the UN. 4,000 people work at the United Nations headquarters in New York. But often it is not enough to do.

THE MIRROR: Assad remains the president of Syria. Other war criminals have also been neck-free. Does that make you angry or resigned?

Del Ponte: Nor either. I keep telling myself that at some point justice will prevail.

THE MIRROR: Where does your hope come from?

Del Ponte: My hope comes from the experience I have been gathering throughout my life. My staff and I built a lot. That is still there. And someone will come to take the reins.

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