The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda recounts eight years of frustration seeking justice for the victims of genocide and crimes against humanity.
From her post as Switzerland’s attorney general, Del Ponte reluctantly accepted a 1999 summons from Kofi Annan to become the UN’s chief prosecutor at The Hague’s war-crimes tribunal, the first such enterprise since Nuremberg. Assuming an office designed to operate independently of governments, she was soon head-butting what she called the muro di gomma (the wall of rubber)—pretended cooperation from diplomats, political leaders, police and military officials intent on thwarting her assignment. At times throughout this dense narrative Del Ponte appears clear-eyed about the difficulties of prosecuting violators of the law or customs of war from an office lacking the powers typically employed by courts in sovereign states: the ability to discover important evidence, recruit witnesses, arrest individuals, etc. At times she’s prepared to accept a certain amount of blame for her failings as an administrator and negotiator. Too frequently, though, she strikes the reader as wholly unsuited—because of her abrasiveness, her disposition to take quick offense, her missionary zeal—to the real-world limitations of her admittedly daunting task. This is most apparent in her determination to eschew mere victor’s justice in favor of prosecuting, midstrife, all sides in the Rwanda and Yugoslavian conflict. Not content going after the likes of Miloševic, Karadžic and Mladic, she’s genuinely disappointed to have been unable to bring charges against NATO for its possible misdeeds in the 1999 bombing campaign in Serbia. She is intolerant of anything short of complete cooperation and absolute justice, a conviction her admirers will find noble and her critics insufferable. Full of her worthy mission, she comes off as precisely the pampered bureaucrat—eager for distinction, jealous of her turf, protective of her legacy—she claims to loathe.