Carla Del PonteCarla Del Ponte

This biography is taken from  Benedict von Tscharner, ‘Carla Del Ponte’ in Benedict von Tscharner, Inter Gentes: Statesmen, Diplomats, Political Thinkers, translation Nathasha Proietto, (Infolio editions & Éditions de Penthes, 2012): extract: pp. 349-357.

Attorney General of the Swiss Confederation, Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda

One of the main aims of Swiss foreign policy is the defence and reinforcement of international law. Despite this, few Swiss nationals have occupied high-profile positions in the international legal system, notable exceptions being Max Huber – who was a member of the International Court of Justice from 1922 to 1932 and presided over it between 1925 and 1927 – and, fittingly, Carla Del Ponte, who has been prosecutor at two temporary International Criminal Courts. In Max Huber’s day, Switzerland was an active member of the League of Nations; at the time Carla Del Ponte was in charge at The Hague, her country was not even (yet) a member of the United Nations. Her strong personality, coupled with a courageous stance when taking on international organised crime was first noticed when she became Prosecutor for the Ticino and then for the Confederation in Bern. In addition, her candidature to accede to this high-profile international role was helped by the fact that she comes from a country that had not been involved in any of the conflicts where there were protagonists to be judged, though Switzerland was far from being the only nation to fit that criterion.

Carla Del Ponte grew up in Bignasco, in the Valle Maggia, part of the Canton of Ticino. She studied Law in Bern, Geneva and the United Kingdom. In 1975 she began working for a law firm in Lugano and three years later she opened her own practice alongside her husband, Daniele Timbal. Her interest in criminal law was clear from the start and in 1981 she successfully applied for a post as a magistrate. In 1985 she became Prosecutor for her canton, which brought her into contact with the murky world of international organised crime (drug trafficking, illegal arms trade, money laundering) and allowed her to work alongside legal entities and personalities from other countries, such as Giovanni Falcone, the Italian judge from Palermo renowned for his tough anti-Mafia stance- in 1987 he presided over a trial where the accused numbered no less than 465! His 1992 assassination in a bomb attack profoundly affected Carla Del Ponte.

Her appointment in 1994 as Attorney General for the Confederation in Bern highlights how important the international dimension of organised crime had become. An exemplary law to tackle money laundering was adopted in Switzerland at around the same time. In this new job, the Ticinese magistrate again displayed the traits of efficiency and bravery that she had become renowned for. Inevitably she made enemies along the way, especially in the world of finance. Mrs Del Ponte did not hesitate to investigate at the highest levels, going so far as to look into affairs involving the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Mexican President Carlos Salinas. There was apparently a sigh of relief from some quarters in Bern when she was promoted to Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal of the United Nations for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague and for the same institution for Rwanda, at Arusha (Tanzania), taking over from the Canadian Louise Arbour. It is the Security Council that is responsible for this appointment. In this instance Mrs Del Ponte enjoyed the support of the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In the modern era, international criminal justice has been irrevocably marked by the Nuremberg Trials after the end of the Second World War, an instance whose aim was to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. These trials served as a means to make the world understand that military victory is not enough; indeed, reconciliation between warring peoples can only occur if the crimes committed during a war are punished, thus shattering the vicious circle of impunity. How did these two particular international tribunals, one for the former Yugoslavia and the other for Rwanda, come to be created? They are not to be confused with the International Criminal Court, a permanent institution created later.

It would clearly be too time-consuming to summarise here the political and military developments that affected the Balkans in the early 1990′s. Suffice it to say that after the death of Marshal Tito in 1980, the tensions between the various ethnic and provincial groupings within the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia worsened significantly. Serbia, led by the former Communist Slobodan Milosevic, not only attempted to limit the autonomy of its own provinces, including those of Voivodina, Montenegro and Kosovo, but also attempted to set up Serbian hegemony across the whole country, backed by the use of the Federal Yugoslav Army. By 1990 however, the Federation was falling apart, its disintegration precipitated by the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Croatia and Slovenia were among the first Member States of the Federation to declare independence in 1991, with Macedonia following suit shortly afterwards and Bosnia-Herzegovina continuing the trend in March 1992.

These political events were accompanied by military conflicts, mainly in Croatia at first, where Belgrade attempted to tighten its control over the Serb minority population living there and then in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where there were clashes between troops from the Serb parts of the country and those identifying as Muslim Bosnians and Christian Croats from Herzegovina. In this context, the image that dominates memories is that of the siege and bombardment of the capital Sarajevo by Serb-controlled forces, a city inhabited mainly by Bosnians. Other incidents, such as the murder of Croat patients at a hospital in Vukovar by Serb militias or the killings of the Muslim villagers of Ahmici, committed by Croat soldiers, have not had such an impact the collective memory. The intervention of the United States and other powers allowed for the Dayton Peace Agreements to be signed in 1995. This agreement established the internal borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with the area known as the Serb Republic oriented more towards Belgrade and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina revolving around Zagreb. The Serbian province of Kosovo, whose population was mainly Albanian-speaking, suffered several more years of fighting. Belgrade was totally opposed to the calls for independence from the population and the activities of the militias of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UçK/KLA).

The war crimes that the International Criminal Tribunal instituted by the United Nations in May 1993 had to judge included the aforementioned violent episodes, and notably, too, the civilian massacres outside of a well-defined military context and of what came to be known as instances of “ethnic cleansing”. Yet it was not enough simply to offer general, moral or political condemnations. In the context of a judicial process, even one at international level, it is necessary for the prosecution to present sufficient evidence to prove each allegation. Furthermore, any judgement can be attacked during the appeals process. In what is usually a highly-charged political atmosphere, it is not always easy to get hold of the necessary evidence and to make the authorities and population in the countries concerned help investigators. The aim is not to look for those lower down the chain who are scapegoats of sorts anyway, but to prove the guilt or collusion of political leaders and other highly-placed actors such as generals, who have usually never killed anyone personally. This is only possible if the prosecutor has in her possession official or confidential documents or credible witness statements from people in the immediate entourage of the accused; these witnesses must be protected from all form of intimidation.

An International Criminal Tribunal with a near-identical structure was set up in 1994 in the Tanzanian town of Arusha to judge war crimes committed in Rwanda. At the heart of the Rwandan conflict are the tensions between the Tutsis, an ethnic minority which has historically exerted the most power, and the majority Hutu population. Civil war first broke out in neighbouring Burundi, where the President, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was assassinated in 1993. One year later, the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, also a Hutu, lost his life when the French airplane carrying him back to the capital Kigali was shot down as it was preparing to land. The Hutus blamed the Tutsis for this assassination and in the space of a few months fanatical Hutu militias had killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Even the presence of UN Blue Helmets was not enough to put an end to the violence. At the end of the conflict, the Tutsi side took power – or more precisely the militias of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by the future President Paul Kagame – and occupied Kigali. These soldiers had lived for many years in neighbouring Uganda, where they had undergone intensive military training. Their victory led many Hutus implicated in the genocide to disappear into the crowds of refugees making their way to neighbouring countries.

Carla Del Ponte began her work at The Hague and Arusha in 1999. The two tribunals had been up and running for two years already. Among the major events of this period are the fall of Slobodan Milosevic as President of the Federation of Serbia and Montenegro in September 2000 and his arrest and transfer to The Hague in March and September of that year respectively. The prosecutor displayed an intractable determination in her demand, addressed to all the successor states of the former Yugoslavia that they cooperate fully with the International Tribunal. She also asked the international community to refuse all economic assistance and discussions on possible future European Union membership to any country that did not acquiesce. Her main demand was that all war criminals still in hiding and being protected be arrested and extradited.

This demand was made with figures such as Radovan Karadzic, the former President of Republika Srpska, and also of Rakto Mladic, Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army during the deadly attack on the Bosnian city of Srebrenica in July 1995, in mind. Janko Babetko and Ante Gotovina, the latter being a former fighter in the French Foreign Legion, were both wanted for questioning about crimes committed during the expulsion of the minority Serb population from Croatia, especially those from the Krajina region. This cat and mouse game, revolving around war criminals in hiding or who had simply disappeared, turned the story into a tragicomedy of sorts. However, there were also instances of certain accused persons giving themselves up voluntarily; the most famous case being that of the UçK/KLA commander Ramush Haradinaj, who was Prime Minister of Kosovo for a few months in 2004-2005.

The frank language employed by the prosecutor very soon began to exasperate those who considered her statements counter-productive or embarrassing, especially during the pursuit of complex and rapidly-evolving diplomatic relations with Belgrade and Zagreb. It is rumoured that the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan even wrote to ask Carla Del Ponte to tone down her statements. As for the prosecutor’s intentions to extend her investigations to cover the NATO bombings of Serbia in 1999, these met with insurmountable opposition. For this Swiss woman, the notion of insisting, of demanding, of fighting even when you hit a brick wall, is all part of her mandate; any deviation would compromise the search for the truth. Among the many personalities that Mrs. Del Ponte met over the years, very few earned her respect or praise: Zoran Djindic, the Serbian Prime Minister assassinated in 2003, was a rare exception.

In her memoirs, Carla Del Ponte describes the complexity of the work she carried out as well as its frustrating nature. Of course, the inquiries uncovered a great many facts and produced witness statements and pieces of evidence; but going from that to actually formulating accusations of war crimes, even genocides, that are watertight in judicial terms, is anything but straightforward. Sometimes there is competition between international law and national criminal proceedings relating to charges of corruption and abuse of power. At The Hague and Arusha, the prosecutor had to, in certain cases, make do with staff that either lacked motivation or were simply ill-prepared for the difficult role they were tasked with. The rules and regulations of the United Nations, as well as the political role played by that organisation in some of the territories concerned, did nothing to simplify matters.

2003 saw Carla Del Ponte having to stand down from her position in Arusha. At the United Nations Security Council, the United States and the United Kingdom pronounced against the extension of her term as prosecutor, citing the reason that being responsible for two criminal tribunals was too much work for one person. It would not be unfair to surmise that the real reason may lie elsewhere; indeed, the prosecutor was probably a little too keen to pursue the investigations into war crimes committed by the Tutsi militias of the RPF during the Civil War. In other words, she was not prepared to allow international justice to become victor’s justice.

Carla Del Ponte resigned from her post at The Hague at the end of 2007. Despite a series of career successes, she left under a cloud of personal dissatisfaction. The decision by the International Court of Justice in February 2007 – this court being responsible for dealing with in disputes between states – to dismiss Bosnia-Herzegovina’s charges that Serbia was complicit in genocide disappointed her deeply. Similarly, the death of Slobodan Milosevic in his cell after a heart attack in March 2006 robbed her of what should have been a peak moment in her career. Milosevic always refused to recognise the competence and legitimacy of The Hague; by refusing a lawyer and making political speeches instead of defending himself, he succeeded in drawing out the trial proceedings significantly. His death also contributed to weakening the political support the Court had hitherto enjoyed.

Carla Del Ponte’s name did not disappear from the headlines after she stepped down. As a former senior civil servant of the Confederation, she was entitled to expect a new position that took account of her high-level professional experience. She accepted the post of Swiss ambassador to Argentina from January 2008, a role she stayed in until 2011. Yet this new role proved somewhat incompatible with her stated intent to write a book about her experiences as a prosecutor in which she would describe her work with stark frankness and in great detail. This is how her remarks about the alleged trafficking of organs taken from kidnapped Serbs created a scandal, because the impression was given that powerful members of the young State of Kosovo – basking in its status as a respectable new nation – were implicated. In any case, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Bern invited the author, who was in Europe for the launch of her (most interesting) book, to return to her post in Buenos Aires forthwith, a rather unusual move, especially given that news of the matter echoed its way into the media.


Carla DEL PONTE, with Chuck SUDETIC, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals, Other Press, New York, 2009; La Traque, les criminels de guerre et moi. Madame Ia Procureure accuse, Editions Helo”ise d’Ormesson, Paris, 2009; Im Namen der Anklage. Meine Jagd auf Kriegsverbrecher und die Suche nach Gerechtigkeit, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt a.M., 2009; original Italian-language edition La Caccia. lo e i Criminali di Guerra, Feltrinelli, Milan, 2008 Irma HILDEBRANDT, Mutige Schweizerinnen, Heinrich Hugendubel Verlag, Kreuzlingen, 2006


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