Radovan Karadzic has finally been arrested. There’s a warrant out for Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir. It’s been a good week for the enemies of war criminals. Now, it’s time to focus on preventing such crimes in the first place.
That doesn’t mean retreating to committees to hatch plans for humanitarian interventions. There are other avenues to pursue, and one of the most fruitful might be improving media coverage. According to journalist Roy Gutman, who spoke with New Voices back in February, if reporters better understood the laws of war—when a war crime was being committed, how, and by whom—they could “ring the alarm bell sooner and better.”
To that end, Gutman and other journalists, lawyers, and scholars created the Crimes of War Project to decode the laws of war for journalists and laypeople. Gutman, who won a Pulitzer for his work from Bosnia, explains that such guidance would have immensely helped his own reporting. He gives the example of coming across a destroyed hospital during the Croatian war:
If I had done my homework, I would have asked the hospital people exactly when it happened, under what circumstances, was anyone inside the hospital firing out from there, using it as a military object, and then I would have gone to the other side and I could have carried it straight up to the Chief of Staff. I discovered afterwards that the same thing had happened to five hospitals within about two months. This was a pattern not just of breaking the law, but of testing the reaction. And I think it may happen in war routinely, but if we are not there really early on and watching for this, we’ll miss all the signs. Croatia was a test case for Bosnia. The Serbs saw they could get away with things like this in Bosnia.
In 1999, the project compiled Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, which New Voices dubs an “encyclopedia of war crimes.” Last November they released a revised and updated edition (whose text is fully available here).
The major thing about the laws of war is not that they’re out to punish the culprit. The major aim of the laws of war is prevent recurrence of the crime. For my money, the spotlight alone is just as good as any instance of law or any court. If the spotlight works and abuse ends, fine. That’s the object.