July 14, 2013

David Rohde: A ruling redefines war crimes

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"People in international law are divided," said Gordy, a professor of politics and sociology at University College London. "Divided over how much oversight international law ought to have over military activity."

International war crimes prosecutions expanded throughout the 1990s, but the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks vastly altered the debate. In a 2001 essay, an American military lawyer, Charles J. Dunlap Jr. coined the term "lawfare" - a practice where militarily weak opponents use "law as a weapon of war" against superior military power.

Former Bush administration official John Bolton and other American conservatives say Palestinians and their allies use "lawfare" to falsely accuse Israeli forces of war crimes. They warn that international courts could target American military and intelligence officers and eventually limit the U.S.'s ability to use military force.

Bolton and other conservatives are wrong. The recent decisions are major setbacks that set unrealistic standards of command responsibility. Meron and his allies are weakening a system of international law that should be strengthened.

This past Thursday, thousands of mourners gathered in eastern Bosnia to mark the 18th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered. Families buried the remains of 409 victims which had been exhumed from mass graves and recently identified through DNA analysis. The dead included 44 boys between the ages of 14 and 18 and a baby girl who perished after being brought to a U.N. compound for safety.

In neighboring Serbia, meanwhile, the two secret police commanders, Stanisic and Simatovic, enjoyed their new freedom. They had trained, funded and supervised the paramilitary units involved in the brutal killings around Srebrenica -- but judges ruled that they had no responsibility for the executions.

The legal battle is not over. Meron's term as tribunal president ends this fall. This summer, he must be re-elected by the court's 18 judges. Unseating Meron and having other judges reverse the destructive precedents he has established would further the cause of international justice and honor Srebrenica's victims.

Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.


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