Newly elected deputy prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, James Stewart, has not led an everyday life. Although he was educated like many other Canadian lawyers, having earned a BA from Queen’s University, a master’s from Université de Laval, and a law degree from the University of Toronto, Stewart knew early on being a cookie-cutter lawyer was not for him. He wanted to be elsewhere — and he found what he was looking for in Tanzania and The Hague. “I was never interested in the business of law,” says Stewart. “I was interested in travel and the wider world. I read history. I worked in the West Indies after my first degree. I travelled to Europe right after my call to the bar in 1977. I was always drawn to things outside my immediate experience.”
Born in Montreal and raised in the Eastern Townships, Stewart’s father was a mechanical engineer who served overseas with the Canadian Army. Both his uncle, who served in the Air Force, and his grandfather were lawyers. “I briefly considered filmmaking as a youth but once I went to law school, I knew that was it.” Stewart has worked at the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General’s Crown Law Office - Criminal since 1985.
Early in his career, Stewart worked for Arthur Maloney, whom he describes as one of Canada’s great defence counsel, and articled for Robert J. Carter, both of whom he credits for teaching him about law and life. And there was Louise Arbour, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and ex-chief prosecutor of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. “It was through Louise that I got involved in international criminal law. She needed someone in the Rwandan tribunal who could speak English and French. Her comment to me was, ‘Can you imagine that one half of my office cannot speak to the other half?’”
Stewart spent almost two years as a senior trial attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1997-98) and with Arbour’s encouragement, he became chief of prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, where he spent another three years. Speaking of his time there, Stewart says: “You felt like you were on the cutting edge of the development of international criminal law. I loved working with people from all around the world and trying to accommodate different approaches based on different legal systems.”
Stewart returned to Canada in 2001 and figured that was it for working abroad. But three years later, he was back in Arusha, Tanzania at the ICTR where he stayed for several years. “I found in the end, I was drawn back to it.” Although Stewart kept leaving his post at the AG to work abroad, they welcomed him back each time he returned to Toronto.
Working on cases of genocide and other horrendous crimes has taken its toll on Stewart, although he is not necessarily aware of how much. “There is no way not to be affected by the people you are dealing with, particularly at the trial level. In Rwanda, I was preparing witnesses to testify and these were people who lost their families in front of their eyes; people who had gone through horrendous experiences and yet had the strength, a kind of stoicism, that I found very admirable. I am sure it has altered my view of the world and it has affected me in many ways I probably don’t even realize.”
Holo Makwaia, a senior prosecutor with the ICTR in Arusha, first met Stewart in 1998 when he joined the Office of the Prosecutor in Kigali, Rwanda. “Mr. Stewart has impeccable leadership qualities. He not only led by example but he continuously empowered others. He ensured we all performed our tasks to the best of our abilities and he made sure the principles of fairness and due process were observed.”
One of Makwaia’s most memorable moments of working with Stewart is when they secured the world’s first genocide convictions. “The small group of lawyers who worked on the three genocide cases were very proud when the judgments came out. The impunity that had reigned in Rwanda had come to an end. We were proud of our achievements and Mr. Stewart played a significant role in achieving them. He was there through the pioneering phases of the tribunal.”
Today, Stewart is packing up his Toronto office one last time and is heading to The Hague and the ICC for nine years. “The ICC is at the pinnacle of an international system of criminal justice,” says Stewart. “It is kind of a court of last resort, or a court of exceptional or extraordinary resort, if you will. It is also part of the spearhead of the spread of the rule of law. The ICC represents an ideal of the rule of law and it can play a strong role in the world.”
Exactly what his role as deputy prosecutor will be has yet to be determined. He describes the post at the ICC as mostly administrative, overseeing the various cases of the court, but he also says time in the courtroom is always a possibility. “I suspect the bulk of my work will be law, as opposed to diplomacy, which is what the deputy prosecutor should be involved with. There are politics involved but I hope to keep them out of what I do and as far away from my people as possible.”
One ongoing criticism of the ICC is the time it takes to bring people to justice. Stewart is well aware of the issue. “At the moment, I am still an outsider. I read what constructive criticism there is from NGOs and I can see how long it takes to bring cases to trial. The process itself is a heavy one. There are so many different interests that you have to take into account: the state, the victims, the accused. . . it is not a lightening-fast process in its design. But I am sure there are ways to make it operate more efficiently. And from a prosecution point of view, delay is not to our advantage.”
Stewart will consider his term at the ICC a success if he has led a collaborative effort and the outcome of that effort is respect. “Respect that the cases that were brought before the court were well thought through, solidly investigated, and persuasively presented; that they have an impact in the way that they were supposed to have; and that they were fair to the accused so the results have credibility. The court is regarded as an institution that is competent, knowledgeable, and savvy — and that is important to me.”