Tag Archives: war crimes

War Crimes in the Middle East

A report issued by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council earlier this week concluded that both the Israeli government and Palestinian militants committed war crimes during the summer 2014 conflict that resulted in more than 2,200 Palestinian deaths—the majority of whom were civilians—and 73 Israeli deaths.

Both sides were quick to condemn the report. In a press conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that Israel remains “committed to the rule of law” and noted that the country has repeatedly been forced to defend itself against “Palestinian war crimes.” In Gaza, Hamas authorities complained that the report stablished “a false equality between victims and their killers.”

The report could further efforts by the Palestinian Authority to launch a formal war crimes complaint against Israel with the International Criminal Court, a strategy Palestinian officials already appear to be pursing.

What do you think? Given the report’s findings, does the international community have an obligation to help resolve the longstanding conflict and prevent further civilian casualties? What if anything might be done to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Palestine? And is the Palestinian strategy of pursuing recourse through the International Criminal Court the correct one? Why?


After the First Verdict: Why So Much Skepticism of the ICC?

Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, became the first person ever to be convicted by the International Criminal Court on March 14, 2012.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its first verdict on Wednesday, convicting Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, of war crimes for recruiting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While some have hailed this verdict as a major victory for the court, skeptics continue to doubt the effectiveness of the ICC.

The ICC is an international governmental organization (IGO)–an organization whose members are states–that was created by the 1998 Rome Treaty and today has 120 members. Its purpose is to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  But a major weakness of the ICC is that while it can issue indictments and arrest warrants it has no enforcement power to actually bring fugitives to justice.  Instead, it relies on states to deliver war criminals to the Hague (where the ICC is headquartered) for trial–a serious limitation since many states lack either the resources or the inclination to assist the ICC.  See this blog entry from last summer for a review of these weaknesses in the context of the Qaddafi indictment.  (In contrast, a success story emerged yesterday from Mauritania, where Moammar Qaddafi’s former intelligence chief–indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity along with Qaddafi–was captured.  It remains unclear whether he will be tried in Libya, in France, or at the ICC).

Another concern is that the ICC is frequently unable to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute the most severe crimes.  This problem reared its head in the Lubanga trial, as highlighted by the Kenyan newspaper The Standard:

“One conspicuous aspect of the Lubanga trial is that he was solely charged with forcibly conscripting and using child soldiers in war. This is despite the fact that rebels under his command have been accused of massive human rights violations, including ethnic massacres, murder, torture, rape, and mutilation…[An expert suggests that the ICC prosecutor] may have opted to only prosecute the lesser crime because he probably did not have tangible evidence on other atrocities.”

Shadow Government, a blog written by conservative opponents of the Obama administration, recently blasted the ICC over its failure to apprehend Joseph Kony, the indicted war criminal who is the subject of the most viral video in history:

“…The Kony YouTube producers have put their full faith in the International Criminal Court. The chief prosecutor of the ICC is, predictably, reveling in the media attention. How pathetic. Has anyone missed the fact that the ICC indictment was issued seven years ago? The ICC has not been the solution, the ICC has been the excuse — since 2005 — for inaction. In the misguided thinking of the ICC’s supporters, no government or military needs to do anything about stopping Kony because once he is captured he will be put on trial. One problem: Who is going to catch him? Just like its predecessor, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICC has proven to be an exercise in non-interventionist self indulgence. By focusing exclusively on the eventual prosecution, non interventionists (generally a collection of cowardly governments, conservative realists, and left-leaning peace activists) can wrap themselves in the moral satisfaction of appearing to take action while avoiding the unpleasant reality that someone has to step up and do something about it. As predicted by the ICC’s critics at the time of its founding, it is all law and no law enforcement. ”

What do you think?  Are the ICC’s myriad critics correct or do they exaggerate the deficiencies of this IGO?  These critics usually don’t discuss the alternative: if the ICC did not exist, would the world be better or worse off?

The International Criminal Court and Global Governance

Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, the target of an ICC arrest warrant.

The International Criminal Court’s decision this week to issue an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi has revived debate about the power and usefulness of the ICC in world politics.  The ICC is an international governmental organization (IGO)–an organization whose members are states–that was created by the 1998 Rome Treaty and today has 114 members.  Its purpose is to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  (The charges against Qaddafi, his son, and his military intelligence chief were for crimes against humanity stemming from the regime’s  crackdown on anti-government protesters).  The ICC operates according to the principle of complementarity, which means that it can only act when national court systems are unable or unwilling to take action against the perpetrators of such crimes.  The United States has refused to sign the Rome Treaty and has expressed fears that its soldiers or government officials could be subjected to politically motivated prosecutions by the court, but it has increasingly shown a willingness to use the ICC as a tool to accomplish its foreign policy goals, as discussed in this piece by Colum Lynch.

“Global governance” refers to efforts to move beyond an anarchic system of sovereign states and create structures that can make and enforce rules at the global level.  The ICC is obviously a crucial part of these efforts.  However, a fundamental weakness of the ICC (and other global bodies) is that it does not have an army or police force that can enforce its arrest warrants and bring indicted war criminals such as Sudan’s President Bashir or Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi to justice.  One commentator described the ICC indictment as a fairly impotent call for Qaddafi to “please turn yourself in, now.”  Without “teeth” to enforce its dictates, the ICC must rely on cooperation from state actors, and a number of analysts have raised doubts about whether the NATO forces that are carrying out the bombing of Libya will extend their mission to enforcing the arrest warrant against Qaddafi and his associates.  David Kaye, director of the International Human Rights Law program at UCLA’s School of Law, put it this way:

“Arresting the three would require “boots on the ground,” a scenario that has largely — if not categorically — been taken off the table, especially by the United States. The last time NATO faced such a predicament, in Bosnia in the 1990s, it long resisted devoting any of its resources to enforcing arrest warrants issued by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, even when it had significant numbers of troops on the ground.”

Beyond questions of enforcement, other analysts have argued that the ICC indictments, while morally and legally justified, represent a tactical blunder that reduces the chances of a peace deal that could end the bloodshed in Libya.  Foreign policy analyst and former National Security Council official James Lindsay argued in a May 17 Op-Ed piece that an arrest warrant “…would give [Qaddafi]  additional reason to dig in his heels. With the threat of arrest and trial in The Hague hanging over his head, he knows he will not have the option given dictators of old – going into exile to Paris (Baby Doc Duvalier) or retreat to Saudi Arabi (Idi Amin)…Both a rebel victory and a stable ceasefire remain out of reach. A diplomatic initiative to persuade Gadhafi to step down offers one way out of the current stalemate. But Monday’s ICC indictment simply gives him another reason to hang on and fight.”  For other thoughtful articles on the conflict between justice and peace in this case, see here and here.

The Atlantic’s Max Fisher provides a somewhat different view, arguing that “Ultimately, the arrest warrant is likely to serve as little more than another bargaining chip in any negotiations over ending Libya’s civil war. That’s a good thing — as fighting worsens and civil society degrades, anything that makes peace more likely is essential — but it’s not quite international justice in the legal sense of the term.”

A final critique, aimed not at the indictment of Qaddafi per se, but at the inconsistent application of international law (i.e., why Qaddafi and not others?)can be found here.

What do you think?  Was the ICC’s indictment of Qaddafi a wise step?  How can the structural impediments to global governance (foremost among them, state sovereignty) be overcome to enforce human rights globally and consistently?  Or would the surrender of state sovereignty to supranational organizations actually create more problems than it solves?

The ICC’s Problem in Darfur

Earlier this week, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, the current President of Sudan. According to the ICC, al-Bashir is wanted on suspicion of “being criminally responsible . . . for directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property,” constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The ICC has not accused al-Bashir of genocide, as many human rights activists have demanded.

The warrant, which makes al-Bashir the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, has sparked sharp debates in the international community.  The government of Sudan responded to the warrant by accusing the ICC of being a tool of neocolonialism.  China has requested that the United Nations Security Council suspend the warrant, a course of action supported by Russia.  The African Union has described the move as unhelpful.  Jean Ping, the Chair of the African Union, commented, “What we see is that international justice seems to be applying its fight against impunity only to Africa as if nothing were happening elsewhere, (such as) in Iraq, Gaza, Colombia or in the Caucasus. Issues of peace are so important that justice must take them into account in Sudan just as elsewhere.”

The U.S. government has been supporting the ICC’s efforts to prosecute al-Bashir, providing information to the court despite efforts by the Bush administration to limit the influence of the ICC with respect to U.S. nationals. 

The ICC’s warrant for al-Bashir has been the subject of much debate in the blogosphere.  At the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman poses the provocative question, “Is the Bashir arrest warrant a good thing?”  At SSRC, Alex de Waal argues that the ICC should not have indicted al-Bashir in the first place

The current standoff illustrates the real limits of international law, particularly international humanitarian law.  While there seems to be a common agreement that human rights should be protected, there remains significant disagreement over the scope of those rights.  Are human rights universal or culturally specific?  And even if we can reach agreement on the universality of human rights, should the ICC have universal jurisdiction (the ability to prosecute national of any country for violations of international law)?  These questions remain controversial—just witness the U.S.’s demand that its nationals be exempted from the ICC’s otherwise universal jurisdiction.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum took place in Davos, Switzerland, over the weekend.  The forum is intended to provide world economic leaders an opportunity to meet to discuss issues of global importance.  The meeting is normally incredibly cordial, as the economic focus of the conference provides an opportunity to move beyond traditional political wrangling that characterizes official meetings of heads of state.  This year, however, the Gaza crisis prompted the Turkish prime minister to leave the meting in protest and tension filled the air.  In general, this year’s forum has been dominated by discussion of the global economic crisis  British Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned against a rising tide of protectionism similar to the trend that occurred leading into the Great Depression, while bankers cautioned the U.S. government against political interference in banking operations

In news outside Davos this week:

1.  Provincial elections in Iraq on Saturday were generally peaceful.  Although the final tally will take more than two weeks to complete, preliminary results indicate voter turnout was 51 percent, a slight decline from 2005.  Turnout in Sunni provinces, which had previously dismissed the electoral process as biased against their interests, was particularly high.  With more than 14,000 candidates competing for just 440 seats, there are bound to be a large number of disappointed political parties and candidates.  The question that worries observers now is: how do those who lose the vote respond?

2.  A last-ditch effort to craft a government of national unity in Zimbabwe appears to have been successful, as Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change agreed on Friday to join Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union, Popular Front to govern the country.  Once one of the wealthiest and most productive countries in the region, Zimbabwe has gradually collapsed into economic chaos.  With the unemployment rate at an estimated 95 percent, the World Food Programme estimates that up to 70 percent of the country’s population may require food aid in the next six months.  In an effort to deal with the crisis and bring the country’s rampant inflation—currently believed to be running as high as a quadrillion percent (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000%, incase you’re wondering) under control, the government last week also removed restrictions on using foreign currencies for economic transactions within Zimbabwe.  It is now possible—indeed likely—that bread, gas, and other basic commodities will be priced in U.S. dollars, pound sterling, South African rand, or other foreign currencies.

3.  The crisis over the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which was at the heart of a diplomatic standoff between the United States and Russia lat year, has once again reemerged on the international stage.  Russia has announced plans to construct a new naval base in Abkhazia, a move which Georgia claims will undermine its national sovereignty.  Meanwhile, in an apparent overture to the west, Russia has suspended plans to deploy a missile station in Kaliningrad.  Russia had announced its intention to deploy cruise missile batteries in the enclave last year after the United States moved forward with plans to deploy its missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. 

4.  The Mexican government announced on Tuesday that the country is likely headed into recession, with the economy estimated to contract by as much as 1.8 percent in 2009.  The Mexican economy is heavily dependent on exports to the Untied States, with exports to the U.S. accounting for 80 percent of all Mexican exports and representing about 25 percent of all economic activity in the country.  Already, Mexico’s central bank has cut interest rates in an attempt to stimulate the domestic economy.  Meanwhile, an ongoing conflict between powerful drug cartels and the central government has led some analysts to forecast that Mexico could achieve “failed state” status if it is unable to assert control over the cartels.

5.  Although the fragile ceasefire in Gaza has officially held, a number of fractures are beginning to appear.  On Thursday, Hamas launched rockets into Israel in response to an Israeli airstrike against a suspected arms factory in Gaza on Wednesday.  President Barack Obama named George Mitchell his Middle East envoy, and Mitchell appears to have his work cut out for him.  Arab states are demanding an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Israel during the conflict in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed and more than 5,000 were injured. 

And in a bonus story this week:

6.  A moderate Islamist leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was declared the winner of Saturday’s presidential elections in Somalia.  Ahmed was the head of the country’s sharia court system that brought stability to southern Somalia in 2006.   But the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops earlier this year has led to even more instability in Somalia, and the political process, now to be led by Ahmed, has been dislocated from the country, now based in neighboring Djibouti.  Somalia has become a haven for piracy in recent months, and the World Food Program was forced to halt shipments to the country due to insecurity.