A New Article on War Crimes Tribunals’ Role in Deterring Wartime Atrocities

Civilians typically bear the brunt of suffering in contemporary conflicts.  Long after liberated Nazi concentration camp survivors held up the first sign declaring, ‘Never Again!’ civilians have faced genocide in Bangladesh, Burundi, Guatemala, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Darfur.  Sexual violence, torture, and forced disappearances also count among the innumerable horrors that civilians continue to endure. 

In the 1990s, international officials sought to respond to such suffering by establishing a new generation of wartime international criminal tribunals (ICTs or war crimes tribunals).  In particular, in 1993 the United Nations Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY, or Yugoslav Tribunal).  The ICTY paved the way for the establishment of the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) five years later.  Unlike earlier ICTs in Nuremberg and Tokyo—as well as recent war crimes tribunals in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, East Timor, Lebanon, Bosnia, and Kosovo—both the ICTY and ICC are mandated to prosecute international criminal law (ICL) violations committed in the context of active armed conflicts.  In so doing, the ICTY’s and ICC’s founders hoped that they might, among other things, deter combatants in those conflicts from perpetrating violence against civilians.

Over 25 years after the establishment of the first wartime ICT, there are still more questions than answers regarding these institutions’ role in deterring atrocities.

Advocates of wartime international criminal tribunals (ICTs) hope they can deter combatant atrocities against civilians.  Yet, more than twenty-five years after the establishment of the first wartime ICT—the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)—wartime ICTs’ role in deterring such violence remains a matter of debate.

In a new article—"Deterring Wartime Atrocities: Hard Lessons from the Yugoslav Tribunal" appearing in International Security (edited at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs)—Dr. Jacqueline R. McAllister argues that wartime ICTs can deter atrocities, but that it is harder for them to do so than advocates have argued.  Specifically, wartime ICTs will have the best chance of deterring government and rebel forces from committing atrocities against civilians in the presence of three conditions: (1) ICT officials have secured sufficient  prosecutorial support, (2) combatant groups rely on support from liberal constituencies, and (3) combatant groups have  centralized structures.  Case studies of the ICTY’s impact on fourteen combatant groups from the Yugoslav conflicts—combined with hundreds of field interviews with war veterans and others—support the argument. 

Ultimately, the ICTY’s record sheds important sight into how and when contemporary wartime ICTs—including the International Criminal Court—might succeed in deterring combatant atrocities against civilians.

To learn more about Dr. McAllister's work, you can follow her on Twitter (@j_r_mcallister).



This blog post was originally published on Intlawgirls on March 3rd 2020.

Tags: Criminal law, Performance
Published Mar. 10, 2020 10:25 AM

It may be perhaps too ambitious for war crimes tribunals to foresee and prevent future atrocities. Primarily, such tribunals are supposed to look into the atrocities that have already taken place.

Kishor Dere@webid.uio.no - Mar. 13, 2020 2:05 PM
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