Tag Archives: IHL

International Humanitarian Law more clear and more debated than ever – updated

by Rhodri C. Williams

The immediate inspiration for this post was the fact that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) recently put online its vast and expanding database on which norms of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are now deemed to have attained the status of customary international law (CIL), binding on all parties to armed conflicts whether or not they have ratified (or otherwise assented to be bound by) the treaties that give rise to these rules.

The database consists of both a comprehensive listing of the rules now deemed applicable and a compendium of practice, both that which supports the emerging rules and objections against its validity (anyone want to take some wild guesses on what states frequently feature in the latter category?) In the new online version, the practice of some seven further states and a number of international tribunals have been added. The new database constitutes a highly accessible and useful tool alongside ICRC’s additional databases on treaty ratification and application by States Parties.

The good news is that there has been considerable progress in this area. I have written on this blog and elsewhere about the role of soft-law documents like the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in consolidating a human rights based approach that has transformed humanitarian action in the post-Cold War period. This transformation has brought new possibilities for advocacy by pairing the cautiously phrased and state-centric provisions of IHL with the less ambiguous and more individual-oriented rules of international human rights law (IHRL).

Moreover, because advocacy for the Guiding Principles has focused on engaging willing states (at the risk of to some extent being co-opted by them), they have been far more successful than most soft-law standards, to the extent of having been incorporated in numerous national laws and policies (compiled by the Brookings Institution here) as well as a groundbreaking regional convention adopted by the African Union. This, in turn, has provided support for customary IHL to more vigorously address areas such as the prohibition against arbitrary displacement (including in internal conflicts), the right of voluntary return for internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as the state obligation to respect their property rights.

However the new force and reach that a rights-based approach has given to IHL has brought new risks as well. Most obviously, by encouraging humanitarian actors to condemn violations of human rights (such as forced displacement) and demand accountability and remedies (such as restitution), the rights-based approach may create dangerously high expectations on the part of beneficiaries of aid while simultaneously undermining the perceived impartiality of humanitarian actors. In the worst cases – and we do not have to look far to find them – this limits the access of humanitarian actors to vulnerable populations and puts their own security at risk.

As a result, this ongoing retrenchment of the rules of conflict has opened up new policy debates, most recently in the extremely difficult humanitarian arena of the Syrian conflict. The latest iteration came with the 28 April 2014 publication of an open letter signed by 35 eminent legal scholars. The letter noted that 3.5 million civilians – over a third of those in urgent humanitarian need in Syria – are living in areas accessible only from neighbouring countries. However, because Syria has denied consent to humanitarian actors operating in Syria to send cross-border aid, these civilians face a catastrophe.

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The Bosnia dilemma: What are the implications of the Homs “humanitarian evacuation” in Syria?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The evacuation of civilians trapped, shelled and nearly starved by the Assad regime’s siege of the center of Homs is an operation that will undoubtedly save many innocent lives. Not incidentally, it is also one of the few areas of concrete progress that appears to have emanated from the Geneva talks between the regime and the opposition, which just entered a laborious second round. But it is hard to avoid a sense of unease about the operation and the signals it sends about the course of the conflict in Syria.

Tellingly, the evacuation deal was rolled out between Geneva I and II, with the opposition apparently caught unawares. This ambiguous start might reasonably be seen as signaling yet another iteration of a high stakes game being played by a discredited regime with its back to the wall. As in the case of last summer’s chemical weapons attack – which made the Assad regime the ‘partner’ in an international effort to dispose of its own illegal weapons – there is a whiff of deliberate atrocities in Homs being used to gain leverage.

Concerns have been expressed on at least three levels. First, the evacuation presents the remaining ‘fighting age’ men trapped in Homs with a Hobson’s choice – remain in the besieged center after the ceasefire expires and continue to face starvation and shelling, or surrender to the tender mercies of the regime’s intelligence forces, who continue to hold some 200 men arrested as they joined the humanitarian exodus from the city. This against the backdrop of continued unresolved questions questions about the fate of men starved out of the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya last year:

Rebels have rejected offers to evacuate women and children in the past because of concerns, based on experience, about what might happen to men who are left behind. Dozens of men were detained and disappeared after a similar deal made last year in Mouadamiya, near Damascus.

In light of graphic recent evidence that a single detention center in Syria had tortured 11,000 imprisoned men and boys to death, it is hardly surprising that comparisons have been made between the evacuation of Homs and the 1995 fall of Srebrenica in the Bosnian conflict. As in Srebrenica, the means and motive exist. Moreover, the international humanitarian community is caught in a similarly impossible role, trying to protect civilians in a situation where it will not have the power to do more than act as a witness if the regime is determined to seek a final reckoning with its opponents in Homs.

Which leads to the second concern. Continue reading

We have met the enemy and it is We (the Peoples)

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its now twelve years since the 9-11 attacks sent the post-Cold War human rights revival into a tailspin, and two years since the outbreak of what would quickly amount to civil conflict in Syria – where 70,000 have died and millions are displaced; where the international community cannot even pay for relief, let alone intervene to stop the regime from firing scud missiles into cities it purports to be defending; where the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern political order threatens to crack into pieces, risking the worst collective foreign policy failure since Bosnia, and where the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine has met an untimely and inglorious end .

So you might think we would all be pretty inured to a nip of salt with our humanitarianism these days. Not so, it seems. Its been a particularly bad run recently for those who still reflexively think the UN is part of the solution (hey, I’m with you) despite all better advice. I’m not quite sure where to start. Perhaps with the UN decision two weeks ago to assert diplomatic immunity for having failed to take measures to ensure that its peacekeepers’ latrines avoided triggering a devastating outbreak of cholera in Haiti. Particularly rich, as the Economist points out, coming on the same day as the UN pilloried Haiti for failing to hold its former dictator ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier accountable for his crimes.

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The fog of war crimes prosecution – the ICTY Appeals Chamber acquits Perišić

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Appeals Chamber of the ICTY continued its run of high-profile acquittals yesterday, rejecting all the charges against former chief of staff of the Yugoslav Army (Vojska Jugoslavije or VJ) Momčilo Perišić. The real shock in this series came early, with the highly controversial and bitterly split decision releasing Croatian Generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač last November. Two weeks later, the blogosphere took the acquittal of Kosovo Albanian former fighters Ramush Haradinaj, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj somewhat more in stride. Here, the case against the accused was known to be shakier and the Chamber managed a unified decision. 

So in some senses, the Perišić decision seems to establish a pattern. The Appeals Chamber appears to be applying a stricter level of scrutiny than anyone initially expected, and cases seen as relatively strong must therefore fall along with the shaky ones. Perišić appears to have been somewhere in the middle. As BBC notes, the Trial Chamber had sentenced Perišić to hard time – 27 years – for having knowingly supported Serb forces in Bosnia that carried out crimes against civilians in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. On the other hand, Perišić had already been acquitted of any direct involvement in crimes such as the Srebrenica massacre, and the remaining ‘aiding and abetting’ charges proved easy for the Appeals Chamber to unpick.

This is not to say that some legal controversy is excluded. In this case, the Appeal Chamber’s decision was not unanimous, and the lone dissenter, Judge Liu, asserts that the majority effectively raised the bar in a manner that “risks undermining the very purpose of aiding and abetting liability by allowing those responsible for knowingly facilitating the most grievous crimes to evade responsibility for their acts” (para. 3). However, whatever legal debates will arise from the relatively pithy 50 page decision in Perišić, a great deal of speculation will continue to focus on what remains unsaid. In discussing the earlier Haradinaj decision, I tried to get at what I considered to be some serious non-legal concerns about the ICTY legacy:

… the Tribunal’s jurisprudence remains not only relevant to the development of broader international criminal law, but also – for better or for worse – to both the consolidation and destabilization of national narratives in countries forged in wars now fought an entire generation ago. For those who did not experience these wars but whose political reality remains shaped by them, the Court’s decisions on individual responsibility for past crimes are likely to be taken as evidence of collective vindication or collective stigmatization, raising a real risk that the legacy of the ICTY may be to perpetuate rather than lay to rest wartime animosities.

In discussing these issues, it is crucial not to fall into an unquestioning reliance on the same ethnic stereotypes and tropes that fuelled the war. Dunja Melcic provided a useful reminder on this point in her recent discussion on Greater Surbiton of the popular and media reception of the Gotovina judgment:

‘The Serbs’ didn’t perpetrate any act of genocide and there is no formulation in the Court’s documents that would justify such reckless language. A war-crimes tribunal should be the place where this supercilious ethnicistic treatment of the conflict and the war finds its end. What counts at the Court, is the crime and not the nationality of the accused.

It is nevertheless impossible to ignore the fact that the Court has become enmeshed between two opposing Yugoslav ethno-nationalist theses, either of which would gravely undermine the credibility of the Court if they could be proven, and – crucially – both of which are incompatible with the fundamental idea of the Court as an impartial judicial actor without political motives.

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A roundup of international law debates

by Rhodri C. Williams

For the international lawyers and those who take an anthropological interest in their doctrinal debates, there have been a few interesting iterations on old themes recently. They fall into three categories, namely the ‘law of peace’ debate, the ‘justiciability’ debate, and the debate over whether UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s international law advisor is a crank or a mad genius. Lets take them in that order.

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Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission – Osh riots resulted in crimes against humanity

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission set up to examine the violence between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that killed nearly 500 people last June in the country’s south has just released its report. Most media attention has been devoted to the fact that the Commission identified the minority Uzbek community as the overwhelming victims of the attack, found evidence of official complicity, and alleged that some of the acts committed may amount to crimes against humanity. However, a number of the Commission’s less prominent findings confirm both the role of property destruction in consolidating the victimization of the Uzbek minority and the need for reparations to address these and other crimes.

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Yugoslavia Tribunal issues Gotovina judgment – discriminatory property laws deemed persecution

by Rhodri C. Williams

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) today convicted two Croatian Generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, and acquitted one, Ivan Čermak, of charges of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war. The charges were related to crimes committed during the Operation Storm military campaign between July and September 1995, during which Croatian forces reasserted control over the breakaway Krajina region and displaced as many as 250,000 Croatian Serbs to Bosnia and Serbia.

The Storm campaign has been described both as the largest land offensive in Europe since World War II and as the single most egregious act of ethnic cleansing in the first round of fighting surrounding the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (the consecutive expulsions of Kosovo Albanians and Serbs in the 1999 Kosovo conflict would give it a run later). While I have not yet had time to read the full decision (which weighs in at hundreds of pages), the ICTY press release and summary of the judgment are more accessible and provide a picture of an important and sweeping ruling.

The Court appears to have taken further steps to shift the post-Cold War phenomenon of ethnic cleansing more clearly into the legal category of crimes against humanity involving persecution. In doing so, they have provided an important (and overdue) recognition of the central role that administrative confiscation and reallocation of property and homes play in consolidating such acts. Whether this ruling will have an impact on the somewhat murky negotiations now going on between Croatia and Serbia over compensation for the effects of these acts – in the form of the permanent loss of many Croatian Serb homes – is another question.

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