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James Stewart: Canada’s man in The Hague

James Stewart will become the Deputy Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

If the investigation into the conflict in Mali launched this week by the International Criminal Court's prosecutor leads to war-crime charges, it will be up to her new right-hand man, a Canadian, to help make them stick.

Fatou Bensouda warned that murder, rape, mutilation and summary executions may have been committed in the year-long clash that has seen Islamist rebels seize a large area in the country's north. France has sent troops, and its President François Hollande pleaded with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to extend Canada's week-long commitment of a C-17 transport plane for the mission.

Meanwhile, James Stewart was in his Toronto office packing up court files, one with "dangerous offender" scrawled in black marker, and preparing to move in March to The Hague, where he will spend the next nine years as Ms. Bensouda's deputy.

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His election to the post by the court's 121 member states comes after a 35-year career that has seen the general counsel with the criminal division of Ontario's Crown Law Office prosecute both murderers and burglars in Toronto courtrooms as well as war criminals from Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia on tours of duty with international tribunals.

His task will be to help Ms. Bensouda lead the controversial 10-year-old institution as it faces a funding squeeze from the governments that support it even as its caseload has expanded with investigations sparked by the Arab Spring and now the bloody conflict in Mali.

As is his preference, he says, there has been little fanfare here at home about his new post. But Canadian modesty is common in the world of international criminal law.

A disproportionately long list of Canadians – notably led by former Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour – have worked at the ICC or with the various international tribunals set up to hold war criminals responsible for their actions.

"We seem to get along well with people," says Mr. Stewart, 66. "We seem, because of the nature of our own country, to adapt well to people of different backgrounds."

One other answer: Bilingual lawyers, such as the Montreal-born Mr. Stewart, were in demand for the trials in French-speaking Rwanda.

It was there, in 1997-98, that he had his initial taste of international justice, as part of the team that secured the world's very first conviction for genocide in an international tribunal.

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That he was there at all was down to Ms. Arbour, before whom he had argued criminal cases when she was a judge on the Ontario Court of Appeal. He approached her at a banquet for retiring Ontario chief justice Charles Dubin in 1996, congratulating her for having been made chief prosecutor of the Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals.

A year later, he was in Arusha, Tanzania, where the court was located, trying Rwandan militia leaders accused of co-ordinating genocide – but managing, in his Canadian way, to treat even accused mass killers fairly.

One man he later saw convicted, brutal Hutu militia leader Georges Rutaganda, after seeing him day and day out, startled Mr. Stewart by greeting him like he was a co-worker: "I remember walking into the courtroom at one point and he said to me, 'Bonjour, James.' He called me by my first name."

Mr. Stewart went on, under Ms. Arbour, to manage the prosecution operation for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague, from 1999 to 2001.

It was there that he met his Kenyan wife, an administrator for the tribunal, making his connection to Africa even more personal. The pair have two children, 11 and 9, the latter moving to Arusha with her parents at just three months of age and learning Swahili before she could speak English. (Mr. Stewart also has a 27-year-old son from his previous marriage.)

His family link to Africa, in addition to the fact that Ms. Bensouda is from Gambia, may better equip the court to deal with the frequent criticism that it is an imperialist instrument unduly focused on the crimes of Africans.

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Mr. Stewart, whose spartan office walls are decorated with a large map of Rwanda and a small Dutch-language street map of The Hague, defends the court's docket, even if the current cases are exclusively African: "The prosecutor … says that African victims, they suffer as much as anyone else, and they deserve the attention of the court. And I think she's right."

The controversial upcoming trial of prominent Kenyans allegedly connected to the 2007-08 election violence, and current investigation in Mali, suggest Africa will remain a focus for the court.

But in Mali, at least, it seems as though the international community is taking action as conditions deteriorate. That was not the case in Rwanda, where the world stood by as the massacre unfolded.

"You couldn't talk to Rwandans in those days for very long before they would ask you, 'Why didn't you stop it?' " Mr. Stewart says, pausing, his voice softening. "And that was a good question."

He cautions that the court should not be seen as the single answer to all the world's conflicts: It is meant as a last resort, for use only after diplomacy or military intervention has failed.

"It's not the whole story, I am very aware of that. … I mean, look at what's happening in Mali today. There has to be room for military action; this is a tragedy. Otherwise, a state that was a democracy simply would simply be overrun."

And it remains hard to say if the court is having any deterrent effect, forcing generals and dictators to think twice before they resort to genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

"You only know that over time," Mr. Stewart says. "Surely there is a growing awareness on the part of leaders that there is a potential accountability. … It is a long play. You may not see the positive benefits right away."

What he has seen right away is the empowering impact the trials in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have had on those who survived atrocities and were brave enough to tell the tale. Doing so was such a risky proposition in Rwanda that witnesses had their identities protected and stayed in safe houses.

So, when Mr. Stewart later ran into one of them in front of a Kigali hotel, he averted his eyes, trying not to blow the man's cover.

But the witness, a low-level government official, was so thankful that justice had been done, he threw caution to the winds.

"He saw me and he ran across the street," Mr. Stewart recalls, "and hugged me."

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