Since the end of World War II, the international community has tried to crack down on crimes conducted during war, both against civilian populations and opposing forces. The first war crimes tribunal sought to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the second World War to justice. War crimes can be defined as “serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict” and “serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in an armed conflict not of an international character.” War crimes can take multiple forms such as the torture/mistreatment of prisoners, destroying the homes of civilians, genocide of entire populations, and more. Today, the mission international organizations have in this field is three-fold: preventing such crimes from being committed, defending groups subjected to war crimes from the attacker, and prosecuting those who have committed those actions. The first two duties rest in the hands of the Security Council, which has the authority to send peacekeepers or military forces to regions where war crimes are about to be or currently being committed. This is the principal question that you will address: how can the international community — mainly the Security Council — effectively protect and defend populations who cannot defend themselves?
Today war crimes are carried out in most notably, but not limited to, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and Central Asia regions as they are engulfed by wars. For example, the Afghan War continues after sixteen years of fighting between the Taliban, the US-backed coalition supporting the Afghan government, and most recently, the Islamic State. Sudan and South Sudan are still locked in a bitter war as both sides fight for control of resources and dominance over the other factions, committing acts that are reminiscent of the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Rwanda that was perpetrated by the Hutu group against the Tutsis. In Syria, both Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel forces have been accused of waging chemical warfare on citizens with sarin gas, and Netanyahu’s Israel was found to use white phosphorus shells on Palestinians in Gaza during the 2008-09 war. All of these issues are relevant to the topic of war crimes and must be debated in the Security Council.
World superpowers are not immune to perpetrating such transgressions. Aside from their actions in Syria, the United States has supported Saudi Arabia despite war crimes committed against Yemen, where the Saudi government has launched airstrikes on civilian buildings such as hospitals, and has set up blockades preventing much needed supplies from entering the country; and, has long supported Israeli actions against the Palestinians as the former have continued settlement expansion into the latter’s territories which results in the demolition of Palestinian homes, torturing detainees, and launching missiles in civilian locations. Russia has had involvement in questionable activities such as assisting the Assad regime in their civil war by destroying civilian hospitals and non-rebel aligned buildings, and of course two wars in Chechnya.
The Security Council’s duties as it relates to the issue of war crimes are the following:
“for responding to early warnings provided by the Secretary-General or presented by other organs, engaging in the prevention and resolution of disputes, mandating peace operations to provide different types of support aimed at maintaining peace and stability and protecting civilians, and preventing or halting armed conflict and other forms of violence. As the perpetration of atrocity crimes presents a threat to peace and security and usually occurs in a context of armed conflict, the Security Council has a responsibility to take collective action to prevent and halt atrocity crimes, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly failing to protect their populations against those crimes.”
The Security Council has a variety of actions that is may take in response to war crimes. These actions include sanctions on a particular country, party, or individual within a state that has committed war crimes with sanctions. This prevents those mentioned from gaining access to money in foreign accounts with the intention of making the state’s economic conditions unbearable. If necessary, the Security Council can approve military action against a party if there is a credible threat to a civilian population. The current doctrine is known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and was established in 2005 to prevent genocide or other war crimes from being committed. R2P has three core pillars. First is the responsibility to protect, which dictates that every state must protect “its populations from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Second is the responsibility of the international community “to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility.” Finally, when the state is complicit in one of these war crimes, it is the obligation of the international community to protect the at-risk populace. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was first used by the international community in the 2011 civil war in Libya where Muammar Gaddafi was about to launch an attack on the eastern city of Benghazi. The Security Council has not been successful in carrying out this doctrine in Syria or other locations as members of the Permanent-5 (P5) of the Security Council, have vetoed any resolution which conflicts with their own interests.
As the UN body charged with monitoring conflicts, it is the Security Council’s task to ensure that civilian populations in war torn regions are shielded from danger. This is certainly not an easy task. Resolutions can fail if just one of the P5 states (US, UK, France, China, and Russia) use their veto. Members of the Security Council often vote based on what works in their strategic interests, and not exactly what is in the best interest of the victims of wars. It is your task to determine how war crimes should be dealt with when they occur. It is up to you to determine if current mechanisms need to be strengthened or to start over and create a new framework for dealing with war crimes, and those who carry them out.
Questions to Consider:
- How does your country believe war crimes should be defined?
- Is your country currently engaged in war crimes? Has your country committed any in the past?
- Is it possible for dominant powers (such as the United States and Russia) to be held accountable for war crimes reportedly committed on their behalf?
- Would the deployment of UN peacekeepers be effective in deterring war crimes?
- Should sanctions be placed on countries harboring war criminals in an effort to incentivize them to hand them over to international police?
- Is the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect effective for protecting at-risk populations from war crimes?
- Can/should a response to war crimes be codified into international law? What happens if an atrocity comes up “just short” of meeting the definition? Would it be ignored by the international community?
Resources to Consider:
- “About R2P” About R2P: Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (July 18, 2017).
- Amnesty.org (2017) — Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories 2016/2017 [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- Amnesty.org (2017) — Yemen: The forgotten war [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- “Conflicts not of an International Character”: Treaties, States parties, and Commentaries — Geneva Convention (IV) on Civilians, 1949 — 3 — Conflicts not of an international character (July 18, 2017)
- Gaffey, C. (2017): The U.N. says South Sudan’s army may be guilty of war crimes. Newsweek [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- Hackett, M. (2017): Modern History of Conflict in Sudan. Pulitzer Center [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- icc-cpi.int. (2017): Darfur, Sudan [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- Icrc.org. (2017): War and international humanitarian law — ICRC [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- Ihl-databases.icrc.org (2017): Customary IHL - Rule 156. Definition of War Crimes [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- Nuruzzaman, Mohammed. 2014: “Revisiting ‘Responsibility to Protect’ after Libya and Syria.” E-International Relations (July 18, 2017).
- Quinn, Ben. 2017: “MSF inquiry indicates Russia was behind hospital bombing in Syria.” The Guardian (July 18, 2017).
- Roth, Kenneth. (2017): To Stem the Flow of Syrian Refugees, Stop the Barrel Bombs. Human Rights Watch. [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- “United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.” United Nations (July 18, 2017).
- UN News Service Section. (2017). UN News — War crimes committed by all parties in battle for Aleppo – UN-mandated inquiry on Syria [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- Un.org. (2017). History of peacekeeping — Post Cold-War surge. United Nations Peacekeeping [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- Un.org. (2017). Sanctions | United Nations Security Council Subsidiary Organs [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
- Worldwithoutgenocide.org. (2017). Darfur Genocide « World Without Genocide [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].