WTF Friday, 8/22/2014

Hey, remember that time four years ago when the Southern Sudanese security forces decided they weren’t quite up to the task of protecting civilians from LRA attacks, and that everything would be so much easier if said civilians were armed and could protect themselves?

Well, Detroit police chief James Craig has apparently come to a similar conclusion. Late last year Craig recommended that if Detroit residents want to avoid being the victims of crime, they should go ahead and carry guns. And a few weeks ago he attributed a recent drop in crime in the city in part to the increase in armed citizens.

I’m just not sure he’s thinking big enough. Guns are great and all, but imagine how much more crime civilians could prevent if they had air power…

Khmer Rouge Leadership Finally Held Accountable for Their Crimes… Sort Of

2012-07-19 06.06.57Earlier this month, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the ECCC, a.k.a. the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) found Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan guilty of crimes against humanity.

The two men, aged 88 and 83 respectively, are the sole surviving senior leaders of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which held power in Cambodia from 1975-1979. During their reign, approximately 1.7 million Cambodians died, the victims of forced relocation, enslavement, torture, mass killings, and starvation.

In 2003, the Cambodian government and the United Nations agreed to establish a hybrid (part domestic, part international) tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge for their crimes. After several years of wrangling over the funding, the ECCC became operational in 2006. In 2010, it returned its first verdict: the conviction of the head of the notorious S-21 prison on crimes against humanity, torture, and murder charges.

The proceedings against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are part of the ECCC’s second case. (Yes, that’s right, this court is operating at the blistering speed of one case every four years.) With Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot dead since 1998, this case represented the tribunal’s best chance at holding accountable those most responsible for Cambodians’ suffering.

Originally, Case 002 encompassed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide charges as well as domestic criminal charges of murder, torture, and persecution against (“Brother Number Two”), Khieu Samphan (Cambodia’s head of state during the Khmer Rouge period), Ieng Sary (the Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister), and Ieng Thirith (the Minister of Social Affairs). But Ieng Sary died last year, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, was found mentally unfit to stand trial due to Alzheimer’s. And in 2011, the Trial Chamber made what was to many (including me) a puzzling decision, splitting Case 002 up into smaller “sub-trials”, allegedly to speed up the process. 

The verdict handed down on August 6 wraps up the first of these sub-trials, Case 002-01. (Incidentally, closing statements were delivered more than 9 months ago, so if this is the process sped up, yowch.) Pursuant to the severance order, it dealt with the forced movement of population and the mass execution of former regime officials early in the Khmer Rouge period. It therefore did not reach what many consider to be the emblematic crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime – the prison camp system and institutionalization of torture, the massive forced labor campaign, and the genocidal attacks on the Cham and ethnic Vietnamese minorities.

So although the verdict is a welcome one, it’s not the comprehensive condemnation of Khmer Rouge crimes that victims and advocates had hoped for. And given the advanced age of the remaining defendants, and the glacial pace of the proceedings, this is likely the end of the line for efforts to seek justice for these atrocities.

*In case you missed it, I attended and blogged Case 002-01 in July 2012.

WTF Friday, 8/15/2014

While I was in DRC, Congolese president Joseph Kabila was here, attending the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. In a particularly stellar display of leadership, he brought along a bodyguard of thugs, who assaulted a protester outside of Kabila’s hotel.

Kabila’s entourage wasn’t the only one beating people up. Members of the Gambian diaspora protesting president Yahya Jammeh’s abuses were attacked by Jammeh’s security detail, some of whom were apparently sporting brass knuckles

If this becomes an annual event, maybe next time the White House could make clear that “assaulting peaceful protesters” is not on the list of approved recreation activities for delegates. Perhaps a nice trip to the Smithsonian instead?

*For more on these incidents, see Jeffrey Smith‘s Foreign Policy article.


Mass Atrocity Monday, 7/28/2014

No new content today, because I am en route to Congo, but if you want to catch up on any mass atrocities you might have missed:

Reading them all at once is not recommended.

WTF Friday, 7/25/2014

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Wednesday to establish an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes committed by Israel during its current Gaza offensive. Of the 47 Council members, 29 voted in favor, 1 (the U.S.) against, and 17 abstained.

Gaza vote

UNHRC Gaza votes

Four months ago, I was in the Council chamber as another probe into possible war crimes was debated. Here is the outcome of voting on that resolution, which established an international investigation into alleged abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009:

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

Notice anything?

With the exception of a handful of Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries, almost everyone has flipped their position.

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes. In March, I heard numerous Western countries stress the legal obligation to provide justice for international crimes and the duty of the Council to stand with the victims of human rights abuses. I heard non-Western countries object categorically to “country-specific” resolutions (i.e. initiatives that single out a country for censure or investigation without its consent) and emphasize that the Council must respect sovereign governments and avoid an interventionist approach.

This week, it appeared that none of these positions were particularly deeply held.

*Photos of the vote board are courtesy of the United Nations office at Geneva.

WTF Friday, 7/18/2014

Dear everyone who has said or written some version of “Israel has a right of self-defense, so isn’t committing war crimes” this week,

No. Just no. This is the logical equivalent of saying “I have red hair, so I’m good at math.” The two statements may or may not be true. But there is no causal relationship between them and you are asking that poor conjunction “so” to perform a task for which it is woefully unsuited.

The legality of why a war is being fought and the legality of how it is being fought are separate questions. In international law, the first is known as jus ad bellum and the second as jus in bello.

States are indeed allowed to use force to defend themselves under international law. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter is the clearest articulation of this right but it also exists (probably in a more expansive form) in customary international law, developed through the practice of states.

Whether or not the threat to Israel is the type of attack that triggers the right of self-defense is a live, and much debated, question. But regardless of whether Israel’s war is being prosecuted for just reasons, out of a legitimate right to self-defense, it is still perfectly possible that it is being conducted in an unlawful manner.

War crimes are war crimes, folks. If you use prohibited weapons, extrajudicially execute prisoners of war, or (and these are the important ones here) target civilian populations, or cause excessive harm to civilians through the indiscriminate, unnecessary, or disproportionate use of force, then it doesn’t matter how good of a reason you have for fighting.

And, just so we’re clear, it’s equally possible that a state could enter into a war for manifestly unjust reasons (say, the unlawful annexation of a neighboring state’s territory), and still conduct it with the utmost respect for human rights and humanitarian law.

As you were.