Tag Archives: war

War crimes and show trials redux: the ICTY, Karadzic, and Kissinger

A while back I wrote this post about how war crimes trials often ending up seeming like show trials imposing the victor’s justice on their defeated foes. I also asked if any high profile defendants at war crimes trials had been acquitted, and today one has been. Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic has been acquitted of one charge of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), although he still faces ten more charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war. Here’s what the ICTY said about the acquittal:

Count 1 of the Indictment charges genocide in relation to the crimes alleged to have been committed between 31 March and 31 December 1992 against the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats in some municipalities in BiH. Having reviewed the totality of the evidence with respect to the killing of, serious bodily or mental harm to, the forcible displacement of, and conditions of life inflicted on Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities, the Chamber found that the evidence even if taken at its highest, does not reach the level from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that genocide occurred in the Municipalities.

The Chamber noted that genocidal intent can be inferred from a number of factors and circumstances, including the general context of the case, the means available to the perpetrator, the surrounding circumstances, the perpetration of other culpable acts systematically directed against the same group, the numerical scale of atrocities committed, the repetition of destructive and discriminatory acts, the derogatory language targeting the protected group, or the existence of a plan or policy to commit the underlying offence.  The Chamber noted that although it has heard evidence of culpable acts systematically directed against Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities, and of the repetition of discriminatory acts and derogatory language, the nature, scale, and context of these culpable acts do not reach the level from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that they were committed with genocidal intent.

The Chamber found that whilst the evidence it had heard indicates that the circumstances in which the Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities were forcibly transferred or displaced from their homes were attended by conditions of great hardship and suffering, and that some of those displaced may have suffered serious bodily or mental harm during this process, this evidence does not rise to the level which could sustain a conclusion that the serious bodily or mental harm suffered by those forcibly transferred in the Municipalities was attended by such circumstances as to lead to the death of the whole or part of the displaced population for the purposes of the actus reus for genocide.

If that gave you a TL;DR moment that’s understandable. Damn legal mumbo jumbo! Basically they have said that Karadzic’s actions in relation to this specific charge haven’t crossed the threshold for genocide. I think this is a good sign. I don’t know details of the case but the fact that the court is willing to acquit on this charge shows that defendants are not effectively being convicted before they have been tried. It seems likely that he will be convicted on at least some of the other counts, especially those relating to the Srebenica, but for now the fact that a high profile case can feature an acquittal adds credibility to the international justice system. After all this was a man dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” by some in the Western media – not exactly a moniker which implies innocence.

However, until alleged Western war criminals also face charges in a meaningful court the charge that these trials only exist to punish the defeated cannot be ignored. How about we start with Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger? As Christopher Hitchens famously pointed out, the case against him is pretty solid. The recent conviction of Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting crimes in Sierra Leone only strengthens the case against Kissinger by establishing a precedent which could see him convicted for even more crimes against humanity. I use Kissinger as an example simply because he’s an easy one, but there are plenty more Western leaders with similar pasts out there. Lets bring them up on war crimes charges!

I don’t think that this will ever happen but if proponents of international justice want to ensure that they are respected then they should fight for justice for all. Seems like a pretty basic principle to me. If Western governments genuinely believe these trials are fair and balanced, and that their own leaders and political figures are innocent of war crimes then why shield them from facing charges? If protecting sovereignty is the issue (a hypocritical excuse that) then they can bring the charges in their own courts. Maybe the defendant can turn up on the back of a flying pig…


Sudan’s problems are bigger than Omar al-Bashir

While Syria’s civil war rolls on with another (presumably doomed) Annan peace planSudan has been rocked by a series of violent protests against the government which president Omar al-Bashir says are nothing like the Arab Spring. Western journalists say otherwise. Well, not all. Anyway as I see it the argument over whether it is or isn’t an extension of the Arab Spring is more a matter of trying to get website views than anything else. I think a more pertinent question is what hope is there for lasting change in Sudan?  Make no mistake, Bashir is not a nice fellow – there’s a reason he’s been indicted for crimes against humanity – but ousting him and establishing democratic structures won’t solve the problems which are plaguing Sudan.

The simplest narrative to explain the state of Sudan today is this: there was a civil war which led to the country losing its oil-rich southern region (now the imaginatively named South Sudan) and now it’s poor. Although the immediate threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan seems to have passed, neither state appears very stable or strong at the moment. Aside from this issue though, there is the problem that Sudan is a large multi-ethnic state dominated by one ethnic group and uneven distribution of wealth and power across different regions has fuelled ethnic tensions. The conflict in what is now South Sudan was one example of this, while another is the crisis in Darfur which is now in state of uneasy peace. Granted, a true democracy in Sudan might alleviate some of these issues but not all. Wealth will still be unevenly distributed because of the uneven distribution of resources. These resources include arable land, and as desertification spreads in the north of the country the people who had lived and farmed there have sought other places to go, and this in fact was one of the key causes of the Darfur conflict.

Although the new state of South Sudan controls most of the oilfields now, the refineries and port where this oil can be put on tankers are in Sudan and thus co-operation is needed to ensure the oil still flows. However, South Sudan plans to build a pipeline through neighbouring Kenya, meaning that Sudan could be shutout of a share of the oil revenue. So to maintain the standard of living that many Sudanese have become accustomed to another source of income may have to be found. Again, the removal of Bashir and the establishment of a democracy in Sudan might make it a more appealing place for foreign investors and aid. However, as global economic woes continue the amount of aid money available will be reduced, and foreign investment relies on something to invest in. In an economy facing regional climate change in the form of desertification, an economy which is 80% agricultural looks like a bit of a problem.

If Omar al-Bashir can be removed it will be a victory for human rights and international justice, and if Sudan can develop stable democratic structures then the country will better placed than it now is to deal with its myriad issues. Nonetheless the examples of Egypt and Libya have shown that the transition from dictatorship to democracy is never easy, and Sudan’s challenges are if anything bigger than either of those. Optimism is a good thing but its easy to get carried away. Of course, the Sudanese people have to actually get rid of Bashir first, and I doubt that there will be any appetite in the West for a Libya-style intervention in this case. And then if Bashir is ousted, what is to stop conflict flaring up again between groups looking to take over from him?

Sudan’s future looks bleak, and so does that of South Sudan. Ironically, people in both countries may have been better off in the long-term if they had stayed as one state. All hail the law of unintended consequences!


Can we please drop the debate about religion causing war?

The whole religion causes violence (and specifically large-scale violence between social groups, or war) argument has always irritated me because it implies that it is somehow possible to separate the religious aspect of one’s identity from the rest of that identity. I don’t deny that the way in which people represent their place in the world and their relationships to the rest of humanity can lead to violence and conflict, but I don’t think there is anything special about religion in this context. Granted that religion is often a massive part of identities which become part of the justification for war, for instance in the Balkans, but the few hundred years of secular society we have to draw examples from don’t exactly indicate that non-religious identities are less prone to violence. People of the same religion also often fight each other, and these conflicts can also shape the identities of the groups involved. For example, just look at the way in which the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 – a war between two nominally secular and predominantly Protestant nations – was recently celebrated (yeah, celebrating war is fine apparently).

Like democratic peace theory (which I wrote about here) the religion causes war argument often relies on defining terms so that they suit the proponent’s position. For example, Stalin is often presented as someone who have killed in the name of atheism as a counterexample to people killing in the name of religion. Atheists dispute this by either arguing that he wasn’t actually atheist, or that he killed in the name of communism not atheism. However Marxist-Leninism as an ideology is explicitly atheist – so killing priests and bishops is not just a political action against the power of the church but an action to free the people from the shackles of religious thought. A more nuanced argument is that in this context Stalin’s ideology is effectively a religion, but this smacks of a circular argument – religious ideology causes violence so if your ideology is violent it must be religious,  even if you explicitly say it is anti-religious. Another sort of argument which is like those used to defend democratic peace theory is to list all the horrific acts in history which could be called “religious” and say “look, there’s way more of these than secular or atheist ones” while not acknowledging that from a historical perspective the extent of secular/atheist thought is miniscule so of course there are less examples to draw on.

Another point which I don’t see raised often in these arguments is the place of those cases where religion causes peace.When I was researching my Masters thesis in Bougainville for instance I often heard from people there about the vital role church groups played in bringing warring factions together to negotiate peace terms. This was in a conflict which was sparked by resources and ethno-nationalism and later became a complex mix of inter-tribal violence, but where all concerned parties were Christian, and even where they were different sects of Christianity that meant nothing in the context of the war there. Other examples are the Latin American Council of Churches being actively involved in peace programmes in Colombia and Guatemala, Desmond Tutu in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa, Muslim peace activists in America, and the work of conflict negotiator, academic, and Christian, John Paul Lederach. I could go on, but I’m guessing you’ve got the point now. Religious doctrine can just as easily lead to peace as war, so why focus on the negative side of it?

I recently perused some parts of a book called “The Myth of Religious Violence” by a Christian theologian called William T Cavanaugh. I enjoyed what I read because it articulated a lot of ideas I personally had about this subject. For a start he talks about how hard it is to define religion anyway, and that before the enlightenment the dichotomy between religious and secular did not exist and thus all arguments must be made in the context of Western thought from the enlightenment onwards, and then he goes on to argue that the debate about religion causing violence serves to legitimate the violence used by secular Western governments while deligitimating the violence used by other, non-secular groups (specifically Muslims). An article by him here summarises the book quite nicely. Here’s quote from it:

The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality.

I don’t deny that people who are explicitly religious sometimes commit violence for explicitly religious reasons, but to say that religious thought leads to violence, or even that religious worldviews have a tendency to be more violent than secular ones, is to take very complex sets of data and find the conclusion that you wanted. This is especially true when talking about large-scale violence or war – such events are the outcome of many different factors which include the  geographical, the historical, and the socio-cultural. Identity undeniably plays a huge part in this and for much of the world religion is a crucial part of identity, so of course we would expect it to be called upon as a reason for violence. However to focus only upon the religious aspects of identity is to obscure the deeper questions about how and why certain groups feel the need to commit violence against others.

By constantly rehashing the debate about the link between religion and war we risk discounting other factors from our explanations of violence at large scales. At a practical level too, the constant promotion of the idea that religion leads to war may risk excluding religious groups from negotiating peace terms and working towards reconciliation between conflicting factions. Finally, it risks creating a new framework where secularism, and to a lesser extent atheism, becomes something which because it is considered more peaceful can be violently promoted around the globe. Please, can we just drop this debate? There is no obvious clear link and the search for one is dangerously distorting of the way in which we view humanity, by splitting it into the enlightened, peaceful atheists and the deluded violent theists.Even if this is not what atheists are seeking to do such oppositional thinking will only serve to fuel fundamentalism as it aims to defend itself against the perceived attack of secularism.

If people really want to help create a more peaceful world they should seek to develop a social space where all beliefs and identities are respected and included, and where violence is condemned no matter what the cause. To say that any belief system is better than any other not only smacks of cultural imperialism but also just serves to deepen divisions and create more conflict.

Note: In case you’re wondering I don’t identify as either atheist or religious.


Syria’s civil war: time to call it what it is

I constantly see headlines which say something along the lines of “fears of Syria civil war” or “Clashes in Syria amid civil war warnings” which I have to say confuse me a bit. A quick search for definitions of the term “civil war” seems to suggest that it is “a war between political factions or regions within the same country.” Wikipedia states that the parties must be organised, but the general theme is the same – war between groups within a country. Surely then Syria is already in a civil war, so why won’t anyone admit that?

My guess would be that Western powers don’t want to say it because they would rather frame the conflict as the Syrian government cracking down on protesters, and that calling it a civil war could be seen to be legitimating government violence against its citizens. Russia doesn’t want to say it because then they would be admitting that the Syrian government is not as strong as they would like it to be. The news media in general reports what officials are saying, so they won’t call it a civil war until someone in power does. Obviously Al-Assad and co aren’t gonna say it – in their view the opposition are terrorists and criminals.

Calling the crisis a civil war won’t actually change anything the ground but it will allow for a more robust dialogue on how this situation can be resolved. However for now it seems as if the emperor has no clothes. Everyone can see that Syria is in the grip of a violent and nasty civil war yet no one will admit it…


Show trials and war crimes

I admit to having some reservations about the trial of Ratko Mladic and others like it… and that’s a hard thing to say because from the evidence I am aware of there does seem to be a very strong case against him. War crimes and crimes against humanity are obviously a big deal and should be punished but the very nature of them as political, high-profile events makes the trials of accused perpetrators very tricky affairs. For a start, the accused can use them as a place to bandstand and promote more hate in a semi-legitamised context. Then there are, as always, the questions about the fairness of such trials in the first place. The delay in the Mladic case as the result of errors in the handling of prosecution evidence was unfortunate but at least shows the tribunal is not overtly biased towards the prosecution. However, has any defendant ever been found not guilty in a modern high-profile war crimes trial? Not as far as I’m aware, and that is slightly worrying for me (if anyone knows of an example, please let me know).  I’m willing to bet that Mladic will be found guilty too, which does make you wonder about the extent to which war crimes trials are really show trials, enforcing the victor’s justice. Of course there is nothing new about this. After all, no Allied airmen or leaders were ever held accountable for the crime of carpet bombing Germany and Japan (not to mention twice nuking Japan) in WWII despite such actions clearly being in violation of the principle of proportionality as laid out in International Humanitarian Law.

The best way to dismiss these worries would be to bring some of the West’s alleged war criminals up for trial at the ICC (that’s the International Criminal Court, not the International Cricket Council) – but that particular body seems more concerned with Africans, and the US and others are not party to it anyway.

All of which raises an interesting question for me: is it better to have a system which selectively tries war crimes in a seemingly biased fashion, or to have no system at all? If the only war criminals who get caught and convicted are those from marginalised or weak states it clearly is not fair, but not convicting anyone at all is even less fair. So we end up with the current situation, as imperfect as it is. Mladic will be found guilty, his supporters will claim it was never a fair trial, and people in powerful states who are responsible for violations of the war of law will go unpunished. Such is the nature of the international political landscape – liberal institutions only operate in as far as it’s in powerful states interest for the to do so. At least some war crimes are punished, and that fact alone should be applauded. It’s just a shame that moving beyond this point seems so unlikely at the moment.


Post-conflict trauma: who deals with this?

When I went to Bougainville last year to conduct research the region had officially been in a state of peace for a decade and yet the effects of the war were still obvious. A lot of this was physical: burnt out buildings etc;  several parts of the island where there are still warlords operating;  gun crime is common, even against aid agencies such as Oxfam (whose truck was stolen at gunpoint while I was there). Aside from these issues there was an obvious psychological aftermath as well.

The people who had been adults when the fighting started in the late 1980s seemed to have dealt with the trauma of the conflict through a variety of ways, including traditional reconciliation ceremonies (check out the documentary Breaking Bows and Arrows if you want to know more about this). However those who grew up in the decade of fighting have not been as able to cope and this has caused huge social problems. Violence, sexual violence, substance abuse, and anger and depression issues seem worryingly commonplace amongst the youth, and the older generation are painfully aware of this but do not have the capacity to deal with the scope of the problem. These children grew up seeing violence and suffering everywhere and now it has become part of their personalities.

So I’ve been thinking: who deals with PTSD and other trauma issues in post-conflict environments? Ex-combatants were offered counselling by church groups and international NGOs in Bougainville but there was not the resources to help civilians at the same time. Without addressing this issue the long-term security and prosperity of Bougainville is at risk, and I imagine it is similar in other post-conflict areas. Trauma has serious long-term consequences yet addressing it is much harder than the reconstruction of infrastructure and so on. Specialist training and a lot of time is required. Also, as a long-term issue it is harder to get internaional funding. Sadly there are a lot of places where people are suffering in the world and high profile cases get more aid for obvious reasons. The general public donates to causes based on what they know of them, and NGOs, IGOs, and states operate where there is pressure from the public to do so or there are other gains to be had. This sucks, but it’s hard to see it changing any time soon.

This raises more questions for me: how did the trauma of war affect the civilian populations who suffered during the world wars? How have civilian populations in places like Vietnam coped over time since they endured war? Is Bougainville particularly bad because of the nature of the conflict there (which saw it cut off from the outside world for years by a naval blockade) or is it representative of most post-conflict states? Are there any NGOs or other groups dedicated to addressing trauma issues out there?

Does anyone know the answers to any of these questions? I’d like to think Bougainville will pull through because there are a lot of amazing people doing amazing work, but the scale of the problem is immense and the resources at their disposal are, well,  not so immense.