Late last year, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda placed a temporary moratorium on hiring any more court-appointed French and Canadian defense lawyers. At the time, lawyers from those countries constituted nearly half of all defense counsel. Last weekend, The International Herald Tribune published an article, “In Genocide Court, a Geography Bout,” saying that due to the moratorium, Jean-Paul Akayesu, convicted of genocide, has been unable to appeal his conviction with the lawyer of his choice.

Analysis: Even recognizing the need for wide representation of the principal legal systems of the world, when the Tribunal imposes a moratorium on lawyers from particular states, it is correct for alarm bells to sound.

There are two issues at hand: the issue of court-appointed counsel, and that of their geographical distribution.

To begin, Mr. Akayesu’s complaint regarding his defense counsel should properly be dismissed. According to the statutes of the Tribunal, a defendant is entitled to counsel of his or her choosing when assuming the costs. But, when a defendant is unable to pay legal fees, the court appoints a lawyer. Mr. Akayesu, not paying his own legal fees, is demanding that a particular lawyer, not on the court’s roster of lawyers, be appointed as his defense counsel. The Tribunal is not required to meet this demand, as adequate legal counsel are already available.

In defense of the moratorium, the Tribunal Registrar denies that it was enacted in order to increase the number of African lawyers at the Tribunal, stating that since the moratorium was put in place, most of the court-appointed lawyers have been non-African. The Registrar says it is acting in consonance with the Tribunal’s directive to consider the “competence and recognized experience of counsel, geographical distribution, a balance of principle legal systems of the world.”

All the same, a geographical moratorium suggests that considerations other than those of providing the absolute best defense for the accused might be at play.

With the signing in June of the Statute to create the International Criminal Court, and what appears to be the growing trend toward the legalization of international disputes, this moratorium should serve as a stark warning that the administration of justice must always be above politicization.

In the case of the Tribunal in Rwanda, the statutory imperative of ensuring counsel for all defendants is being upheld. But, let us always stand on guard against the danger of politicizing the judicial system.

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