Ambassador to Hell

David Scheffer gives a firsthand account of bringing war criminals to justice

by Maria Browning

All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals
By David Scheffer
Princeton University Press
570 pages
$35

“Never again” has long been the world’s watchword about the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. But for David Scheffer, author of All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals, the phrase is often only a “futile slogan.” Genocide and war crimes have continued to happen all over the globe, from Cambodia to Rwanda to the Balkans, often in spite of international scrutiny and outrage. In the 1990s, the United States government was actively involved in the creation of international tribunals to bring the perpetrators to justice, a process which Scheffer calls “one of the most ambitious judicial experiments in the history of mankind.” Scheffer was the first-ever U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues (an office sometimes referred to by colleagues as “Ambassador to Hell”), and in All the Missing Souls, he gives a firsthand account of the political and diplomatic struggle to form courts of justice for what he calls “atrocity crimes.” He also provides vivid accounts of his own encounters with the survivors of such unimaginable brutality.

In his role as a senior adviser and counsel to Madeleine Albright from 1993 through 1996, when Albright was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and from 1997 to 2001 as ambassador-at-large, Scheffer led the American effort to build tribunals to address crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia. He was also involved in the U.N. talks that established the International Criminal Court. All the Missing Souls recounts each of those efforts, with all their intricate political and diplomatic tensions, both domestically and internationally. For example, Scheffer details the difficult and frustrating process of trying to end a decade of civil war in Sierra Leone—a conflict that included widespread slaughter, mutilation, rape, and the use of child soldiers—and negotiate with the country’s uncooperative president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. The questions Scheffer and his group confronted reveal the complicated tangle of practical, ethical, and legal concerns that must be addressed in war crimes: “Would a well-structured domestic amnesty in fact stop the atrocities? What kind of amnesty should the United States support? Should the amnesty cover only crimes falling short of atrocity crimes?” Adding to the difficulty was British insistence on local control of criminal proceedings within Sierra Leone, despite the country’s state of chaos.

Diplomacy and debate are essential to the search for justice that was the core of Scheffer’s mission, yet it’s clear that he often lost patience with both, particularly after he had the opportunity to witness directly the aftermath of the crimes. All the Missing Souls is peppered with stories of almost unimaginable violence, and although Scheffer’s accounts are not lurid or excessively graphic, he does effectively convey the horror. We sympathize with him when he writes of wanting “the mutilated bodies and missing souls of girls, boys, women, and men of Bosnia, Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Sierra Leone to file silently through the wood-paneled room and remind policy-makers of the fate of ordinary human beings.”

The subject matter makes All the Missing Souls dense and rather grim reading, but Scheffer’s decision to cast the book as a memoir gives him leeway to lighten the tone occasionally. He indulges in some rather unflattering personal descriptions, calling Robert Rosenstock, legal counsel to the U.S. Mission to the U.N., as “a crusty, dandruff-flaking career lawyer” and a “contrarian.” He treats his former boss Madeleine Albright, however, with great respect and affection, and he tells a delightful anecdote about her use of charm to disarm the powerful, especially the males.

The reporting of genocide and mass atrocities in the media often has the effect of dulling us to their full horror. They become abstractions, something that happens to other people, far away. In All the Missing Souls, Scheffer makes those crimes immediate and real, and describes an extraordinary effort to further the creation of a world that “holds war criminals in contempt and breeds them no more.”

Published Monday, 6 February 2012