Tuesday 27 February 2024

On 26 February 2024, ABC News and The Guardian reported on the presence of alleged Rwandan perpetrators of genocide. The related Four Corners episode also delved into the presence of these alleged perpetrators, calls by Rwandan authorities for Australia to extradite or prosecute in line with its international obligations, and a recommendation by former war crimes prosecutor Graham Blewitt AM that a dedicated, specialised unit be established to more effectively investigate these international crimes.

This news reporting is just one of the numerous stories in recent times that have uncovered the presence of alleged perpetrators of international crimes in Australia. These stories call into question whether Australia is in breach of its international obligations to prosecute or extradite perpetrators of such crimes, and whether Australia’s existing institutional framework is adequately trained and resourced to deal with these complex crimes.

In 2023, the Australian Centre for International Justice (ACIJ) released our landmark policy paper, ‘Challenging Impunity: Why Australia Needs a Permanent, Specialised International Crimes Unit’. The paper advocates for the establishment of a permanent, specialised international crimes unit so that Australia can play a more meaningful role in combating impunity for atrocity crimes, and provide a pathway for victim-survivors in Australia and abroad to seek accountability. The unit would coordinate closely with victim-survivor communities, national agencies and international networks to ensure that justice is relentlessly pursued, using Australia’s domestic legal system or other national and international justice mechanisms where appropriate.

For decades, Australia has demonstrated a lack of political will to effectively investigate and prosecute international crimes. The time is well overdue for change. Australia must step up and join others in the international community by proactively investigating and prosecuting international crimes.

Melissa Chen, Senior Lawyer at the Australian Centre for International Justice, says:

“Ongoing impunity, including for historical allegations where the impact on victim-survivors is still felt, undermines the efficacy of both international and national legal systems established to pursue accountability. This dangerous cycle  encourages perpetrators to commit similar acts with the knowledge that they are unlikely to be held to account. These explosive allegations are evidence that Australia is seen as a safe haven for perpetrators of international crimes. Without political and institutional will and a coordinated approach to addressing this impunity gap, Australia will remain accused of failing in its legal obligations.

“We have recommended that at the very least, Australia must establish a permanent specialised international crimes unit to ensure it can be responsive and proactive in accountability pursuits. Australia has the legal framework to address international crimes but its current institutional capacity is weak.”

“Permanent, specialised units overseas have had success in holding perpetrators to account. If the Australian government takes it international obligations seriously, it would follow in the footsteps of these overseas jurisdictions by establishing such a unit here. The establishment of a permanent, specialised international crimes unit would finally open up a pathway for survivor communities in Australia to seek redress for atrocity crimes, and for Australia to effectively coordinate with national and international authorities in an effort to close the impunity gap for international crimes.”


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