Del Ponte, Carla

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Del Ponte, Carla

[FEBRUARY 9, 1947–]

Swiss attorney, named as prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals of the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Carla Del Ponte was born on February 9, 1947, in Lugano, Tessin, the sole Italian-speaking Swiss canton. After studying law in Bern and Geneva, Switzerland, she began her legal career in 1972, where she quickly gained a reputation as an independent and controversial figure. She worked closely with Judge Giovanni Falcone, who enlisted her aid in his campaign against Italian mafia crime bosses. With Falcone, she escaped an assassination attempt (by underworld figures) in 1989. (Falcone was later assassinated in 1992.) She was appointed attorney general in 1994 and spent the next several years prosecuting the presumed godfathers of the Russia mafia, drug traffickers, and money launderers.

Although a member of the Swiss Radical Party, which has close ties to Switzerland's business interests, Del Ponte has nonetheless earned the enmity of much of the Swiss financial community for having focused international attention on banking scandals. In the summer of 1999, she was selected by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to assume the position of prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (ICTY and ICTR). She assumed the post the following autumn, replacing Louise Arbour.

On May 25, 1999, then-prosecutor Arbour indicted Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes and crimes against humanity, alleged to have occurred before and during the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) aerial bombardment of Kosovo. Because of political considerations, several UN member states began to criticize the ICTY as being the puppet of the NATO states. Russia, in particular, demanded that the prosecutor for the ICTY not be a national of any of the NATO members. Switzerland is not a member of NATO, making Del Ponte an acceptable choice for prosecutor.

Del Ponte's first challenge was to decide whether or not to open an inquiry into allegations that NATO's military intervention involved serious violations of the Geneva Conventions. In June 2000 she addressed this option before the UN Security Council in the following terms:

I am very satisfied there was no deliberate targeting of civilians or of unlawful military targets by NATO during the bombing campaign. I am now able to announce my conclusion, following a full consideration of my team's assessment of all complaints and allegations, that there is no basis for opening an investigation into any of those allegations or into other incidents related to the NATO bombing.

Del Ponte's decision set off an international uproar that forced her to make public the Final Report to the Prosecutor, produced by a committee established to review the NATO bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This degree of public disclosure by a UN prosecutor was unprecedented, but the move succeeded in disarming her critics and settling the issue.

Her second challenge at the ICTY was the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic. Thanks to pressure from the United States and the member states of NATO, she obtained Milosevic's arrest and transfer to The Hague, where he would stand trial. This was an historic first—never before had a head of state been brought to judgment for international crimes. At the end of 2001, Del Ponte expanded Louise Arbour's initial indictment to cover allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic now stands accused of genocide for his responsibility in the massacres of Srebrenica in July 1995.

On February 12, 2002, the trial opened against Milosevic. A lawyer by training, he invoked the right to defend himself and launched into an attack on the legitimacy of the tribunal itself. Del Ponte crafted her prosecution to show that Milosevic was the main architect of a plan to create an ethnically cleansed Greater Serbia. Throughout the trial, Serbian public opinion was hostile to the tribunal and the authorities had balked at cooperating with the prosecutor. After two years, Del Ponte finally brought the prosecutorial phase to a close on February 25, 2004. Her presentation relied on the testimony of 296 witnesses and thousands of pages of evidentiary documents. The defense phase of the trial was expected to last another two years, without counting the likelihood of an appeal.

Del Ponte has been under extreme pressure to bring her work for the ICTY to a close. She publicly denounced Serbia's lack of cooperation with the tribunal and criticized the delay in arresting another Serbian leader implicated in the ethnic cleansing policies in Bosnia: Radovan Karadzic.

As of 2004, fifteen perpetrators have entered guilty pleas to reduced charges. Some have criticized the use of plea bargains such as these in the context of crimes against humanity. This prosecutorial strategy has led to judgments that appear unequal, even arbitrary. For instance, Milomir Stakic, the unrepentant ex-mayor of Prijedor, was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes committed locally, but his superior, Bijlana Plavsic, a member of the government of the Srpska Republic and, as such, a leading figure in ethnic cleansing, received a much lighter sentence of eleven years in prison, solely because he was willing to admit his guilt.

Del Ponte's work with the ICTY is only half of her prosecutorial responsibility. She also serves as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The ICTR has been accused of inefficiency and disorder from its very inception. During the first ten years of its existence, the tribunal has succeeded in passing sentence on only about twenty accused, at a cumulative cost of $700 million. Del Ponte has been hindered in her Rwanda prosecutions by political obstacles. The Rwandan government has been resolutely hostile to the work of the tribunal. Over time, relations deteriorated so badly between Del Ponte and the Rwandan government that, on September 4, 2003, the UN Security Council decided to split the post of prosecutor of the two tribunals and to replace Del Ponte as prosecutor of the ICTR, allowing her to concentrate her attention and energies on the ICTY.

SEE ALSO Arbour, Louise; Goldstone, Richard; International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; Milosevic, Slobodan; Rwanda; Yugoslavia


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Pierre Hazan

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Del Ponte, Carla

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