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To the applause of genocide prevention organizations nationwide, President Barack Obama today issued a study directive for the establishment of an Atrocities Prevention Board, whose sole duty will be the development of policy aimed at preventing and responding to genocide and mass atrocities.

This is a milestone achievement, as until now the United States has lacked effective interagency protocols for prevention and response.

Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation executive director Tibi Galis praised the Obama administration for recognizing the need for a “whole-of-government approach to engaging ‘early, proactively, and decisively.’ ”

The directive, rather than spelling out details, offers an outline of the new body’s duties. Stressing the need for an overarching, “whole of government” approach, the president ordered the development of an interagency protocol identifying the government agencies that will contribute to the board’s work.

Many of the directive’s provisions are heavily influenced by the recommendations of the Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF), formed to discuss and develop policy recommendations for the U.S. government. The 2008 report issued by the GPTF argued that genocide and mass atrocities “threaten core U.S. national interests.” President Obama, in his directive today, used similar language, positing prevention as a “core national security interest.”

The GPTF report called for early warning systems, attempts to prevent escalation of violence once begun or imminent, and long-term prevention initiatives. While Obama’s directive remained mainly in the realm of broad intentions, its framework seemed to echo the suggestions of the GPTF report.

The presidential initiative received an avalanche of praise from U.S. organizations working to prevent genocide and other atrocity crimes.

“Finally, there is a concrete effort to put that rhetoric into action and create a standing prevention structure within the U.S. government,” Human Rights First president Elisa Massimino said.

Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, cochairs of the GPTF, said the project “if fully implemented should eventually save countless lives.”

The United States Institute for Peace, a co-convener of the GPTF (along with the American Academy of Diplomacy and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), said it “welcome[d] the announcement” as a “needed step forward.”

The study directive gives the National Security Advisor 120 days to “develop and recommend the membership, mandate, structure, operational protocols, authorities, and support necessary for the Atrocities Prevention Board to coordinate and develop atrocity prevention and response policy.”

Photo: Oregonlive.com

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Mary Stata returns to the AIPR blog as guest preventer this week:

While the debt ceiling debate continues to dominate headlines, Congress will soon begin deciding on annual legislation that sets policies and funding for tools to help prevent genocide and other mass atrocities. The Friends Committee on National Legislation continues to lobby for greater investment in civilian tools that help avert crises that can result in mass killings of civilians.

Lobbying for these small yet vital accounts can be a tough sell in this budget climate. However, we’re not alone. FCNL coordinates the Prevention and Protection Working Group (PPWG), a coalition of human rights, religious, humanitarian, and peace organizations dedicated to preventing deadly conflict and protecting civilians. PPWG recently sent a letter to members of Congress who determine the funding levels for the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. The letter argues that working with international partners and investing in prevention accounts like the Complex Crises Fund and Civilian Response Corps, will save the United States lives and treasure in the coming years.

On July 20, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is expected to mark up the 2012 Foreign Affairs Authorization bill, which guides U.S. foreign policy and authorizes funding levels for the State Department, USAID, and contributions to international organizations like the United Nations. Then, on July 27, the House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up the annual spending bill for diplomacy, development, and international cooperation. The Prevention and Protection Working Group believes that strong investments in these tools better equips the U.S. government to help prevent genocide and other mass atrocities.

Earlier this year, we succeeded in protecting the Complex Crises Fund from being eliminated in the fiscal year 2011 budget. However, it’s clear that we still have our work cut out for the next budget cycle. You can take action and support genocide prevention accounts by contacting your member of Congress. In the coming months, we’ll keep you updated on our progress and continue to lobby for strong prevention funding. Will you join us?

Mary Stata is the Prevention and Protection Working Group Coordinator with the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, DC.

Bosnia: Mladic appears before ICTY again

Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, yesterday appeared for the second time before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The hearing was marked by heated exchanges between Mladic and the presiding judge, Alphons Orie of the Netherlands. His indictment on 11 charges—including genocide, persecution, and deportation—stems from his leadership of the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-95 war, including the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. In court yesterday, Mladic said he would not enter a plea without the presence of his Serbian and Russian lawyers, while the court said the Serbian attorney was not qualified to represent Mladic since he does not speak English. On Sunday, Agence France-Presse had reported that Mladic planned to boycott the hearing as a protest against issues with his representation. After Mladic’s expulsion, the judge entered pleas of not guilty on all 11 charges, but did not set a date for his next court appearance.

Laws of War: Crisis Group president Louise Arbour delivers speech

Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and current president of the International Crisis Group, delivered the annual Kirby Lecture at the Australian National University on June 23. Titled “The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?” the speech examined the current state of international humanitarian law and the laws governing warfare.

Arbour noted that international law regarding the conduct of war has come under attack from both sides, one arguing that traditional laws of war constrain governments’ ability to fight asymmetric wars against terrorists or insurgents, the other arguing that international law gives too much leeway to states that inflict civilian casualties. While Arbour acknowledged important gaps in international humanitarian law, she said some criticisms were a result of the law’s greater effectiveness in recent years in holding perpetrators of atrocities accountable and the desire of some states to avoid being held accountable for their actions.

Arbour noted that armed conflict has changed dramatically since international treaties like the Geneva Conventions were formulated. It is not always clear whether military, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism operations against non-state actors can be considered acts of war, which means they need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine how they should be governed under international and domestic laws. However, even if non-state actors violate laws governing warfare, Arbour argued that states should abide by them, especially when it comes to protecting civilians. Non-state violators can be held accountable through the criminal process, whereas states are still bound by their obligations under those treaties.

Even if asymmetric warfare has made it more difficult to distinguish between civilians and combatants, Arbour said today’s criteria remained useful, relevant, and necessary: “The current formulation does allow for the targeting of ‘civilian combatants’ when they are engaged in hostilities. To expand humanitarian law to allow the targeting of those civilians not directly involved in hostilities would be a dangerous step, and would entirely undermine the rationale of civilian protection.”

Arbour noted the continuing debate over what constitutes excessive civilian casualties, with one side arguing that any restriction on civilian casualties is too restrictive and the other that current laws of war allow too many civilian casualties. She said that current laws struck a proper balance between “military and humanitarian imperatives,” and that clearer standards would develop over time.

Finally Arbour discussed the concept of “lawfare”—the “use or the abuse of laws of war as a military tool.” While she cautioned against the manipulation of law for political aims, she also highlighted international humanitarian law’s potential to play a major role in protecting civilians and prevent conflict if implemented and enforced properly, and warned against attempts to cast aside or radically revise the current system of international humanitarian law.

Photo: The Guardian

Syria: Draft Resolution in Security Council

On Wednesday, France, Britain, Portugal, and Germany submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council condemning the actions by the Syrian government against civilian protesters. Explicitly referring to the Syrian authorities’ responsibility to protect its civilian population and suggesting that the violent measures may constitute crimes against humanity, the draft resolution called for an end to the violence, the enactment of political reforms and an investigation of the situation in full cooperation with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The resolution also urged other states stop and prevent sales of arms and related supplies to Syria. Discussion on the draft resolution is to begin on Thursday with a vote taking place in several days. While the draft resolution has the support of as many as 11 of the 15 members of the Security Council including the United States, Russia and China have expressed strong reservations against it, leaving open the possibility of a veto.

The draft resolution follows last Thursday’s warning from Special Advisers of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, and on the Responsibility to Protect, Edward Luck, and Human Rights Watch’s report regarding the situation in Syria. Deng and Luck expressed alarm at the attack on the civilians, called for “an independent, thorough, and objective investigation,” and urged the Syrian government to cooperate with the inquiry and “to refrain from further attacks against the civilian population.” The Human Rights Watch report, in addition to detailing what it considered to be “crimes against humanity,” went further, recommending that the UN Security Council not only condemn the human rights violations, but also refer the violations to the International Criminal Court and adopting sanctions against Syrian officials if necessary.

Kyrgyzstan: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Reports

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International each issued new reports on the Kyrgyz government’s investigation into last year’s ethnic violence. As a result of the violence between the Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks, nearly 500, mostly Uzbeks, were killed, and 400,000 fled their homes. The Amnesty International report, which alleges that some of the atrocities against the Uzbeks may have constituted crimes against humanity, argued that the government did not fully investigate the violence perpetrated by the ethnic Kyrgyz and possibly even the security forces against the ethnic Uzbeks. Human Rights Watch detailed allegations of torture, as well as ethnic bias against Uzbeks during the trials following the investigation. Furthermore, the organizations expressed concerns that the government’s inadequate investigations may lead to future unrest between the two ethnic groups.

Bangladesh: War Crimes Tribunal

Bangladesh has been instituting a war crimes tribunal relating to its 1971 independence war against Pakistan. One to three million, mostly civilians, are estimated to have been killed, and approximately 300,000 women were raped. The tribunal, which is investigating the participation of Bengalis in the atrocities, is significant as it raises questions on whether accused war criminals should be tried in an international court or in a domestic tribunal, and whether countries without advanced legal systems have the capacity to properly deliver justice. The tribunal, charged with prosecuting genocide and crimes against humanity, is also important because it will be considering sexual violence as evidence in its decision-making. The court’s independence and fairness has been a point of contention, with Human Rights Watch, the International Bar Association, and the International Centre for Transitional Justice all expressing concern over several aspects of the proposed legal proceedings. It remains to be seen whether the tribunal can proceed free from political pressure and according to international judicial standards.

Photo: Guardian

Tensions are running high between Armenia and Azerbaijan, who have yet to resolve the conflict dating back to the Nagorno-Karabakh war of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite a 1994 ceasefire and rounds of internationally mediated negotiations, the two countries have not arrived at a permanent settlement and are currently engaged in a military buildup. Ceasefire violations by both sides and frustration resulting from lack of a clear resolution have led many Azeri refugees displaced by the conflict to consider war as a viable policy option and to engage in what appears to be military training.

Amnesty International issued a report on Friday urging Rwandan authorities to finish reviewing their “genocide ideology” law to ensure it does not contravene Rwanda’s obligations under international human rights law. Amnesty says the law, enacted in October 2008 to prevent a repeat of the 1994 genocide, is too broad and abstract, which leads it to be used to stifle political dissent and limit freedoms of speech and expression, including legitimate criticisms of current Rwandan policies by opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights activists. Rwandan officials responded to the allegations, saying Amnesty had “chosen to misrepresent reality in an inaccurate and highly partisan report.”

Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander, appeared on Friday before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for the first time since his May 26 arrest. Responding to the 11 counts against him, including genocide, extermination and murder, and terrorism, he called the charges “obnoxious” and “monstrous” and declined to enter a plea. Mladic, who spent much of the hearing discussing his ill health, will appear before court again on July 4.

Image: Kiva Stories from the Field

April, for many reasons (including Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur), is Genocide Prevention Month. April 24 is the date Armenians have chosen to commemorate their genocide at the hands of the Turkish state in 1915, and each year on this date the U.S. president makes a statement. But none of them yet has used the word genocide to describe the events. U.S. Congressmen Ed Royce (R, CA) and Frank Pallone (D, NJ) sent a letter to President Obama urging him this year to be the first. Although as a senator Obama spoke openly of the genocide, and of the Turks’ denial of it, he has declined to do so since entering the White House. This year was no different, although in a subtle shift, Obama did use the Armenian term for the genocide, Meds Yeghern (or Mec Yeġeṙn), which means “the Great Crime.”

The first U.S. trial charging a person with genocide is slated to open tomorrow in Wichita, KS, the Wichita Eagle reports. Prosecutors claim that 84-year-old Lazare Kobagaya, a native of Rwanda, not only lied to obtain U.S. citizenship, but personally ordered the deaths of hundreds of individuals during the 1994 genocide in his homeland. According to the Guardian, “The U.S. government’s strategy in the case mirrors its prosecution of suspected Nazi guard John Demjanjuk, who settled in Ohio after the second world war. Demjanjuk was not charged with committing a violent crime, but rather with concealing his activities from U.S. immigration officials.” The website Rwandinfo.com claims that Human Rights Watch, citing First Amendment protection, is resisting a subpoena to turn over information related to the case. The Rwandan government says it welcomes the trial.

Photo: Associated Press

A former bourgmestre (mayor) of Kabarondo Commune in Rwanda, Tito Barahira, has been arrested in France on six indictments, including genocide and conspiracy to commit genocide, AllAfrica.com reports. “We definitely commend this arrest, especially as we are going into the difficult days of commemorating our dear ones that were killed in cold blood during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi,” John Bosco Siboyintore, the acting head of the Genocide Fugitives Tracking Unit, said.

Auschwitz Institute instructor Sheri Rosenberg published an article in the Gulf Times of Qatar titled “The responsibility to protect: Libya and beyond.” Rosenberg, who is director of Cardozo Law School’s Program in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies and also its Human Rights and Genocide Clinic, writes that “it is unquestionably positive that the world powers have reacted to protect innocent lives, as the reality and threat of massacres in Libya was apparent to all,” but she is careful to emphasize that “the use of military force is a last resort and not the poster child of the evolving international policy doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect.”

Nicholas Kristof, writing about the Libyan intervention in the New York Times, argued that the world must not forget that “Mr. Obama and other world leaders did something truly extraordinary, wonderful and rare: they ordered a humanitarian intervention that saved thousands of lives and that even Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s closest aides seem to think will lead to his ouster.” Kristof writes that it has been rare for major powers to intervene militarily for predominantly humanitarian reasons, but he hopes the Libya intervention will give more teeth to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

A humanitarian crisis is still looming in the Ivory Coast, the BBC reports. Continued fighting has resulted in necessary supplies decreasing for many civilians. Reuters Africa reported that after France’s intervention last week, Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to step down as president despite having lost elections last year, has continued to negotiate his possible departure.

Photo: therealtimer.com

In November 2010, the International Peace Institute (IPI) published a report by I. William Zartman titled “Preventing Identity Conflicts Leading to Genocide and Mass Killings.” Published in cooperation with the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide at the United Nations, the paper discusses stages in the prevention of identity conflicts and the tools available for the international community to use. Read it here.

In “Putting Complementarity into Practice: Domestic Justice for International Crimes in DRC, Uganda, and Kenya,” published by the Open Society Foundations, Eric A. White argues that the “principle of complementarity, under the Rome Statute, not only sets forth a key test for admissibility of cases in The Hague; it also places a heavy burden on individual states to help achieve the Rome Statute’s overarching goal: ending impunity for grave atrocities.”

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