War crimes envoy has personal touch

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009

UNITED NATIONS -- Stephen J. Rapp, the new U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes, knows what it feels like to be victimized.

As a 21-year-old congressional intern, Rapp was kidnapped by three men, pistol-whipped, had a gun barrel shoved in his mouth, and then was thrown into the trunk of his 1961 Chevrolet. His captors took the car on a 4 1/2 -hour crime spree from the District to Alexandria before abandoning it south of the Pentagon. Rapp was released the next morning after a passerby heard him screaming for help.

The ordeal has served as a touchstone for Rapp, now 60, who was sworn in last month as the State Department's point man on war crimes. The Harvard graduate has spent much of his career pursuing violent criminals, initially as a federal prosecutor in Iowa. During the past decade, Rapp has served as a U.N. prosecutor for Rwanda and Sierra Leone, where he has tried some of the world's most violent alleged mass murderers, including former Liberian president Charles Taylor.

"I see myself as a champion of those folks," said Rapp, recalling the thousands of Sierra Leonean civilians who were raped, mutilated and killed by the country's ruthless rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) during a decade-long conflict that ended in 2002. In February, Rapp became the first international prosecutor to secure war crimes convictions for perpetrators of rape and sexual enslavement, a practice that led to the forced marriage of thousands of rural girls and women to RUF combatants.

In his new job, Rapp is hoping to fix Americans' attention more sharply on similar crimes around the world, particular in African conflict zones such as Congo, Guinea and Kenya. He also has placed crimes against women -- a priority of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- at the center of his work.

"The United States has been a leader in international justice, and we need to reassert that leadership," said Rapp, who oversees an office of 11 lawyers, diplomats and support staffers. "The primary way that we do it is to press for accountability at the national level, at the level closest to where the crimes were committed."

Rapp's mission has been aided by a president who has vowed to abandon the most controversial practices of the Bush administration, including the use of harsh interrogation methods and secret CIA-run detention centers. But his efforts continue to be dogged by allegations that the United States adheres to a double standard in which Americans, Israelis and other crucial U.S. allies have been shielded from prosecution by international courts.

Last month, a senior Sri Lankan diplomat countered a request by Rapp to investigate war crimes by the Sri Lankan military, which allegedly killed thousands of civilians in an offensive against the country's separatist insurgency. "We're following your lead. We believe in eliminating these terroristic threats and resolving these issues once and for all," Rapp said the official told him.

Fabienne Hara, the New York representative of International Crisis Group, said that Rapp's calls for a war crimes investigation are welcome but that the United States has not lived up to its commitment to stop violence as it unfolds. Its response to war crimes in three of the most serious conflict zones of the past two years, Congo, Sri Lanka and Gaza, consists of pressing for "accountability after the crisis rather than stopping or preventing the crisis."

Rapp said the United States has been actively seeking to put out simmering conflicts before they explode, citing cases such as Darfur, Sudan, where Washington is using carrots and sticks to dissuade the government from abusing its people. Rapp said holding perpetrators to account for election violence in 2007 could help stave off even worse violence in the country's 2012 elections.

Former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright formed the war crimes office in 1997 to lend U.S. support to U.N.-backed war crimes courts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. But the office's mission changed during the Bush administration, when it helped defend U.S. counterrorism policy and secured foreign countries willing to receive detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"It was a radical reversal," said David J. Scheffer, the first U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes. It changed the office's mission from "one of going out there and advancing the agenda of international justice to one of trying to shield the U.S. from justice inquiries."

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