What Happens When the World Cries 'War Crime?'

Allegations of war crimes are quick to surface when civilians are killed in conflicts, but more often than not, these accusations lead nowhere.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Fires burn in part of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan  after it was hit by a U.S. air strike.
Fires burn in part of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan after it was hit by a U.S. air strike. Credit: AFP
Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Last Saturday, a U.S. airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz, killing 22 among staff members and patients. The attack garnered widespread criticism of American tactics in the region and prompted the aid group to call for an independent war crimes investigation against the United States.

Until now, Washington has rejected such a move, insisting on a probe by the Pentagon, NATO and Afghanistan.

The bombing, only one in many recent incidents of civilians being targeted during military conflicts, is a reminder of the horrifying consequences of modern warfare.

However, the attack and its seemingly tepid aftermath also highlight how the “war crimes” accusation – once the most damning indictment of a country’s behavior – now is launched with increasing ease and frequency, only to fall mostly flat when it comes to bringing to justice the alleged perpetrators.

While the United Nations and international bodies have had some success in pursuing war crimes charges, those cases don’t seem to act as a deterrent. Since 2009, the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. But Bashir, who rejects the court’s authority, remains free and is largely able to travel thanks to support from African and Arab states.

In what is possibly the most notorious recent case, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have been accused of war crimes such as the abduction and torture of opposition members, as well as targeting civilian populations during the course of the four-year civil war that is ravaging the country. Assad has been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians, leading to a deal that enabled the UN’s chemical weapons watchdog to disarm the regime of all of its known stockpiles of such armaments.

Beyond these measures, the international community also seemed determined to bring Assad himself before the ICC - formed in 2002 to aid the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But despite what UN officials and Western leaders claim is overwhelming evidence of Assad’s wrongdoing, he continues to act freely, with allies China and Russia vetoing a 2013 UN Security Council attempt to refer his case to the ICC.

Probe killings in Yemen? No thanks

Another more recent case of alleged war crimes that is so far flying under the radar of international prosecutors is the conflict between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Yemen rebels, allegedly backed by Iran. According to figures provided by the UN human rights office in Geneva the campaign has claimed the lives of at least 2,355 civilians out of the 4,500 people killed since the end of March. Despite these figures, and accusations by NGOs such as Amnesty International of possible war crimes being perpetrated by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, a formal investigation has yet to be launched.

Initially, the Netherlands, backed by several Western countries, had drawn up a draft resolution instructing the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights to send experts to Yemen to investigate the allegations. However, opposition from Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners led to that initiative to be dropped last week, with Western governments instead accepting a resolution to support an inquiry set up by the Yemeni government.

Another major focus for possible war crimes investigations has been Israel and the Palestinian Territories, especially after last year’s conflict in Gaza. Both sides in the month-long war have accused each other of perpetrating war crimes, leading to the launch of an investigation by the UN Human Rights Council.

Releasing its findings in June, the investigative commission found evidence that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes during the conflict, calling the devastation caused in the Gaza Strip “unprecedented.”

The commission hinted in its report that the upper levels of the Israeli political echelon were responsible for the policies that led to some of the violations.

The chairwoman of the commission urged the international community to act on the conclusions of the report, primarily by supporting an investigation by the ICC into the status of the occupied Palestinian territories.

While Israel is not a party to the ICC, the Palestinian Authority was welcomed as a member this year, and the court’s prosecutor has opened a preliminary probe into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories, possibly committed by both Israel and the Palestinians.

What comes of any of these investigations, however, still remains to be seen.

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