One Woman's Rage against Injustice; Carla del Ponte on the Fatal Bombing That Helped Turn Her into the U.N.'S Top War-Crimes Prosecutor

Article excerpt

Byline: Del Ponte is currently the chief war-crimes prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

It was the evening of May 23, 1992. I picked up the phone and heard that the Italian judge Giovanni Falcone was dead. A mafia bomb had destroyed Falcone's car, killing him, his wife and three of their bodyguards. The message was clear: mess with the mafia, and this is what happens. I was stunned, terrified. I thought of quitting prosecutorial work and going back to handling divorce and commercial cases. Then I began to burn with rage--against the mafia, impunity, injustice.

Falcone was a fascinating and courageous man, an examining magistrate from Sicily who had waged war against organized crime and the culture of impunity that was sapping the vitality of his country. In the early 1980s, shortly after I was appointed examining magistrate in Lugano, Switzerland, I was asked to deal with one of Falcone's requests for assistance. This brought me into contact with arguably the most influential individual in my life. Over the years, I was to work with him on some of the most significant mafia cases. Watching him interrogate witnesses and suspects and pursue leads even when the road ahead seemed empty, I learned how to conduct dangerous and complex cases and to persevere in the face of criticism and threats. Falcone's murder reinforced my determination to pursue justice.

This pursuit took on new meaning in 1999 when I was appointed chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. I was stunned by the horrific crimes that confronted me: I had never seen death and destruction on such a scale. Thousands of victims had been killed, raped, maimed and displaced. Most of these crimes had been organized at the highest political levels--by presidents, prime ministers, cabinet members and top military brass--and committed by local politicians, party bosses, regular armed forces, paramilitaries and ordinary citizens. Entire societies had been destroyed. For the first time in my life, in addition to my professional responsibility I felt a deep moral obligation to do what I could for the hundreds of thousands of victims of these heinous crimes. …