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Responding to Violations of International Humanitarian Law

David Scheffer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues

Well, when crimes begin to be committed, the first issue for us is really one of information: to make sure that we are getting some accurate information about what is in fact occurring on the ground. And that’s where you always have the difficulty, because by the time you get information, you may be dealing with events that have transpired two, three, four days ago. And it’s just one of the realities: if you don’t have constantly eyes and ears on the ground or overhead to actually see everything that’s taking place, sometimes the information gap in terms of time is going to cripple you a little bit in terms of effective responses. But what we do try to do is identify what has transpired and begin to describe the criminal content of it. Kosovo is a very clear example, where almost every principle of the laws of war and of crimes against humanity were violated. It was so systematic and so thorough that it would—it’s sometimes almost difficult to go through the Geneva Conventions or through well-established principles that define crimes against humanity and pick out one that was not being violated. So, pretty quickly we knew that in Kosovo massive violations were occurring—and the refugees were streaming across the borders, of course. We had an activation order already in place with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that allowed the bombing to commence immediately: as a deterrent, and as an effort to throw back those Serb military and police that were streaming across the border into Kosovo. So, military action by the air took place immediately, and it is one of the historic events of Kosovo that there was a military response so rapidly to a widespread assault on a civilian population. And we were able to achieve that with Kosovo. We have to remember that, with respect to these assaults on civilian populations there is, shall we say, a maturing element in international politics that we are witnessing year by year, and that is a growing awareness of the need to respond, and there are different ways to respond. And I think as we go through each year, we see that that response mechanism is getting better and better, and the time frame is shortening in terms of how quickly the international community can respond. But I think it’s extremely important for people to understand that there is no automatic way to literally stop the killing when it immediately starts, because the only—frankly, it’s not possible to simply throw military armies into the middle of countries immediately to stop that kind of fighting. There are too many factors that pose very understandable obstacles to that kind of reaction. But what we are trying to do is ensure that there are military options that can be implemented as quickly as possible; that there are diplomatic initiatives that can be taken instantly to try to use the resources that are available to stop the killing. And then there are other factors that can be taken into account, including economic leverage. So, there are lots of things that can be done, but each situation is different. Each conflict, every atrocity, is different from than where it may occur elsewhere in the world. There are different factors involved, different governments; some governments more willing than others in the region to react to the violence. And that’s what makes it a very complex and dynamic process every time it happens. But, we certainly do try to get it identified as quickly as possible and to marshal response as quickly as possible.

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About David Scheffer