Rarely do a person’s chosen career and the significance of their work combine to produce a moment of perfect symbolism. You, Mr Flügge, are one of the exceptions.
Your symbolic moment, as it were, occurred roughly seven years ago, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. You and your fellow judges entered the courtroom and the clerk called out: “All rise!” And then Joachim Gauck, at that time President of the Federal Republic of Germany, rose from his seat and bowed deeply to the court.
A member of the German delegation later said how profoundly he was moved by this moment, and I am certain he was not alone. For in this moment, the abstract principle of the rule of law became flesh. It showed that even heads of state are subjects of law and justice.
As a pragmatic and modest northerner, you naturally did not consider this sign of respect as being bestowed on you personally, but on you in your function as an international judge. Nevertheless, this moment clearly illustrates what you have achieved – as a judge, it is true, but because of your personal strengths.
Our esteemed Willy Brandt was once asked what he considered to be the greatest success of his life. His reply: “[that] the name of our country, Germany, and the concept of peace can again be mentioned in the same breath.”
You, Mr Flügge, could make a similar claim. You have helped ensure that Germany can again be mentioned in the same breath as the concept of law and justice.
Given our history, that is almost a miracle. Seventy years ago, it was Germans who were in the dock at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg – for the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed.
Today, German judges sit on the bench in courts in East Timor, in The Hague, in Arusha, and in Cambodia. They are fighting for the rule of law. To ensure there is no impunity for the most serious crimes known to mankind. To ensure that the victims, who have been robbed of almost everything, retain at least one precious thing: their right to justice.
Your long-standing commitment to the rule of law has earned you worldwide respect.
Not long ago, you were asked to hold a moot court in Jerusalem with Israeli students and to debate issues of international criminal law. As a German judge, almost 75 years after the Nuremberg trials. I know how touched you were by this gesture. And it made us proud and sanguine.
Of course, we all know that international criminal law is not without its detractors. On the contrary, it is under attack from ever more quarters. International rules, and the very concept of international justice, are being questioned – and no longer by the usual suspects alone. Perpetrators are not prosecuted, judgements are ignored, and above all there is a lack of political will to deal with past injustices.
It is an imperative of humanity to counter this trend – not to sit back and watch.
- We will therefore put the persistent violations of international humanitarian law on the agenda of the UN Security Council, especially this April when we will hold the chair.
- We support the United Nations and NGOs in Syria, Myanmar and Iraq in their work to secure evidence of war crimes and to pursue justice for those concerned. The perpetrators should know that we will hold them accountable for their deeds.
- For this reason, too, the fact that the Federal Public Prosecutor General is bringing ever more perpetrators of serious war crimes to trial here in Germany also sends an important message.
- And, last but not least, we support the international courts and tribunals, politically, financially, and of course also by providing German staff.
Your work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia will have forced you to concede that absolute justice is sadly not always possible. That there is no escaping setbacks and failures, that expectations remain unfulfilled.
We may well feel frustrated and resentful in such cases. But we must never be indifferent.
In his novel “Professor Martens’ Departure,” Jaan Kross, the writer from your beloved Estonia, has the eponymous international jurist express the following sentiment: It’s all the same in the end for what can I do? Nothing but remain uninvolved at heart.
You were never uninvolved at heart! Far from it, you acquired the reputation of being an outstanding and indefatigable jurist in your cases in The Hague, which included Ratko Mladić’s trial.
And you did what you could to ensure that others likewise did not remain uninvolved. Time and again you received delegations from Germany in The Hague, and gave young German lawyers valuable insights into the workings of international criminal justice.
And even now, after retiring, you have told us loud and clear how vulnerable the criminal courts still are. How important it remains to protect them from political influence and to lend them continued support.
You speak out because you are convinced that these courts not only uphold the law and serve justice, but also ascertain what truly happened.
International courts take the time to review documents and witness statements. They hear the defence and the prosecution. And by the end of the trial, facts have been established.
Nobody today can deny the fact that thousands of men and boys were murdered in Srebrenica. Not now that the ICTY, that your Chamber there, has meticulously set out the details in numerous judgements.
At times like these, when hard facts are denied and rabble-rousing masquerades as factual information, one cannot stress this truth-finding function of the international courts enough.
When President Gauck visited The Hague, you talked to him about the work of the ICTY. And of course you also mentioned the daily difficulties and challenges you faced.
At some stage Joachim Gauck interrupted you and exclaimed, “Stop going on about the problems – what you are doing here is magnificent!”
He was right, as so often. Not only because the ICTY was a milestone in legal history and a prototype for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Court.
But also as regards your own work. Your dedication to justice, that too was magnificent. It is for this dedication that I have the honour to bestow the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany on you today.
You have my sincere congratulations, and my gratitude for all that you have accomplished over the years.