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.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 7/14/2014

Pop quiz time. To what internationally unlawful act did the phrase “crime of crimes” originally refer? Hint: It’s not genocide.

Did you guess genocide anyway?

That’s understandable. In mainstream media, human rights advocacy, and even some legal scholarship, genocide is generally treated as the absolute worst thing that humans can do to each other. But in fact, there is no hierarchy of international crimes and the term “genocide” implies nothing about the scale of a crime. To recap: genocide is the killing or (certain other types of) mistreatment of members of a national, ethnic, religious, or racial group with the intent of destroying that group, in whole or in part. So really, you could be convicted of genocide for forcibly sterilizing one Wiccan lady, if you intended to do likewise to the other members of her coven later on.

The mistaken impression that genocide is worse than other egregious violations of international law leads to a lot of unnecessary scrambling to get all atrocities designated as genocide. (This is exacerbated by another mistaken impression: that the obligation to “prevent and punish” contained in the 1948 Genocide Convention will compel the international community, deaf to the pleas of victims of mere crimes against humanity, to spring into action. So far, it hasn’t.) And the impulse to employ the term to describe truly massive mass killing events means that we’re frequently using it wrong.

The “Cambodian Genocide”, for instance, was probably not a genocide. Over a million Cambodians were killed by the lunatic Khmer Rouge regime’s program of forced relocation, torture, mass execution, and enslavement, but they weren’t killed with the intent of wiping out a national, racial, ethnic, or religious group. The Khmer Rouge may still have committed genocide, though, through their brutal treatment of the Cham and ethnic Vietnamese minorities. There is evidence that members of both of these groups were specifically targeted for slaughter, on the basis of their ethnic identity.

Admitting that the non-Cham, non-ethnic Vietnamese Cambodians weren’t the victims of genocide doesn’t make what happened to them any less horrific. And it doesn’t make those responsible for their deaths any less criminally culpable. In fact, the definition of the crime they were actually subjected to, crimes against humanity, implies exactly the sort of scale with which genocide is erroneously associated.

Crimes against humanity are “widespread” and/or “systematic” abuses of civilian populations. In other words: mass atrocities. But they still don’t earn the label “crime of crimes”. The original use of the term (in Justice Jackson’s opening statement at the Nuremberg Tribunal) was in reference to crimes against the peace, a.k.a. “aggression”, a.k.a. starting a war, a.k.a. that thing governments do all the time.


Recommended Reading: Peaceland

I’m hereby joining the chorus of people telling you to add Séverine Autesserre’s Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention to your summer reading list.

In Peaceland, Autesserre takes the substance of countless rants-over-drinks about wrongheaded international interventions and turns it into a serious and persuasive theoretical argument. She argues that the “everyday dimensions” of international peace-building efforts have huge impacts on their success (or lack thereof). As she explains in a recent Monkey Cage post:

Everyday dimensions refer to mundane elements, such as the expatriates’ social habits, standard security procedures, and habitual approaches to collecting information on violence. For instance, it matters whom interveners have a drink with after work, whether it is with other expatriates or with local counterparts. It matters how they talk to, look at, refer to, and interact with ordinary people. It matters where they go to collect data, whom they speak with, how, when, and for which purpose. It matters what kind of houses they live in (a compound that looks like a bunker or a normal house). And it matters whether they constantly advertise their actions or keep a low profile. All of this should go without saying, but most of the time on-the-ground interveners and their higher-ups dismiss these kinds of everyday elements as too prosaic to be important.

Autesserre’s approach is ethnographic, and weaves together a staggering amount of interview data and personal observations in support of her contention that peacebuilders constitute a distinct subculture whose common habits, practices, and narratives have profound unintended consequences. And, if you enjoy criticisms of ill-informed advocacy movements (I know I do!), there’s a whole section on how these dynamics played out in the construction of the “Congo: All Rape and Minerals, All the Time” discourse.

Check it out!

*Full disclosure: I read and gave comments on an earlier draft of the book.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 6/30/2014

In an excellent Foreign Policy article on Western Sahara (seriously, go read it), David Conrad reports that Dallas-based Kosmos Energy has a Moroccan license to begin drilling for oil off of the disputed territory’s coast. A Kosmos senior VP told Conrad that the company believes “we are doing the right thing in partnering with Morocco”.

The Sahrawis (as the inhabitants of Western Sahara are known) have been fighting for their independence for more than 40 years, first against colonial power Spain, then against neighbors Morocco and Mauritania. Despite a 1975 opinion of the International Court of Justice finding that Western Sahara had no preexisting legal ties with either Morocco or Mauritania that would impede its right of self-determination, both countries’ forces entered the territory in 1976. Their arrival was heralded by a massive attack on the Sahrawi population.

With foreign troops advancing across their homeland, much of the civilian population of Western Sahara had fled to refugee camps in the desert. In January and February of 1976, the Moroccan Air Force targeted these camps, dropping napalm and white phosphorus bombs (both of which were subsequently banned for use against civilian targets in 1980). Thousands of refugees died in the bombings.

The Sahrawi military organization, the Polisario Front, responded with guerrilla attacks against Moroccan and Mauritanian targets. Mauritania withdrew from the conflict following a 1978 coup and ultimately extended formal recognition to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. But Morocco fought on through the 1980s, defending its claimed territory by constructing a series of walls (with a total length of over 2700 kilometers) to keep the Polisario out.


In 1991, an internationally brokered ceasefire put an end to active hostilities. The agreement provided for a UN peacekeeping mission and a referendum on Sahrawi independence. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) deployed in April 1991, but the referendum never happened. The initial plan to hold it in 1992 derailed over a dispute about who was eligible to vote. Five years later, a subsequent effort broke down when Morocco refused to accept the results of a census. UN special envoy James Baker finally resigned in frustration in 2004 following the failure of the parties to agree to a succession of “Baker Plans”. His successors in the position have not had better luck.

38 years after the departure of Spain, the population of Western Sahara still has not been given the chance to vote for independence. Morocco spends millions pre-empting international pressure to meet its international legal obligations. This money has paid off, with support from the U.S., the U.K., and France, the kingdom has repeatedly defeated efforts by the UN to add human rights monitoring to MINURSO’s mandate. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sahrawis remain displaced in refugee camps and those who live in Moroccan-controlled territory face ongoing violations of their rights.


*Map of the Moroccan walls is from Wikipedia. (And yes, I realize it’s technically Wednesday, but I started this post two days ago, and Mass Atrocity Monday’s really more of a state of mind than an actual day, right?)

Enough Already with “If It Bleeds, It Leads”

You know what pisses me off? When every mainstream, new, or yet-to-be-classified media outlet blithely reposts pictures of victims in the process of suffering horrific violations of their human rights.

(Although if you answered “everything”, you are technically correct, but that’s not what this post is about.)

I’m referring to the photographs that ISIS released last week, showing the apparent extrajudicial execution of captured Iraqi soldiers. The images (which I discuss in greater detail here) were republished by virtually every Western media outlet that covered the massacre.

Disturbingly, both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran photos in which the victims’ faces are shown. Other outlets (BBCThe GuardianSlate, and Al Jazeera) selected images in which the faces of those about to be murdered are obscured, but other identifying information such as clothing, haircut, and body type are clearly visible.

Let me pause here to point out that Iraqis have the internet. A few of them may even have forked over the cash to read more than 10 articles per month. It is therefore entirely possible that some of the parents, siblings, or children of the murdered men learned of their loved ones’ brutal deaths through a photograph posted on a newspaper website.

Even if the chances of emotional injury to the family members were nonexistent, this is still a terrible violation of the dignity and privacy of the massacre victims themselves. But identifying the victims of violence and human rights abuse is standard operating procedure for Western news organizations. The Washington Post once ran a series of photographs of a Kurdish child being subjected to female genital mutilation. And the New York Times is, of course, the venue in which Nicholas Kristof published the name and picture of a nine year old (nine!!!) victim of rape.

Kristof’s offense was particularly egregious. It is the stated policy of the New York Times not to name rape victims. And, as Jina Moore pointed out at the time, the rules are even stricter when it comes to child victims. Nevertheless, he pushed back. In a blog post responding his critics, Kristof argued that images and identifying information are necessary to inspire readers’ compassion for faraway people in need of help.

This is the logic that motivates the inclusion of photos, videos, and personal anecdotes in human rights advocacy and appeals for humanitarian aid. (And Amanda and I are on record with our concerns about this approach, which too often seems to permit assessments by advocates or journalists that the “cause” and “awareness” are more important than the individual victims.) However, this line of reasoning doesn’t fully apply to straight news coverage. There isn’t really an argument to be made that running graphic images of their suffering in a wire story helps victims.

Instead, many reporters seem to be unthinkingly following the “if it bleeds, it leads” directive. The images of hundreds of Iraqi men waiting to be shot in the head, like the pictures of partially undressed bodies of Tamil prisoners of war or sex trafficked Cambodian children are attention-grabbing and compelling. But if “shining a light on atrocities” or “raising money for the victims” aren’t good enough reasons to disregard basic human decency, than increasing web traffic and selling newspapers isn’t either.