The government of Sri Lanka has decided it will finally end its twenty-five year struggle with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This has been a bloody and violent conflict with much loss of life. Humanitarian crimes have been committed by both sides. The Tamil Tigers are intolerant of any dissent within areas that were held by them and the government has also been accused of killing civilians and using child soldiers. Last week the Sri Lanka government ordered a 48 hour use of defensive force only so that civilians could leave the last embattled area. Both the United Nations and the United States have urged the governemnt to extend the time so that civilians could be evacuated. When the 48 hours expired, the government resumed its attack. After an earthen dam built by the Tigers had been demolished thousands of civilians poured out of the area. The estimates of how many civilians were trapped ranged from 60,000 to over 110,000, and it is believed thousands are still inside the zone of fighting. Journalists and NGOs are having a hard time assessing what the situation on the ground really is because the Sri Lankan government will not allow journalists into the area. Hopefully, in the push to end the conflict, the world will not lose sight of the allegations that the Sri Lankan government is and has been committing genocide against the Tamil people. The government has always denied the allegations, but there is enough credible information to at least warrant an international investigation.


The issue of piracy, not just in Somalia, but throughout the world’s five hot spots, including Indonesia, Malaysia, China and the Philipines, have been a growing problem for the past nine years. At present there are approximately 200 crewmen from multiple vesels who are stuck in limbo waiting for their vessels to be freed. Indeed, a few of the other hot spots have been more violent then the situation in Somalia. The difference of course, is that now the United States has decided it is time to do something about the pirates because an American crew was affected by the hijackings.  And the first thing that will be done is to try the 18 year old pirate in the federal courts in New York for crimes that expose him to life in prison. Other  scholars, such as Eugune Kontorovich and  have written about the legal aspects and difficulties of prosecuting piracy, and the international law blogs have covered the Somali situation extensively. The interesting thing is that piracy is the classic jus cogens crime, giving nations the room to prosecute through the use of universal jurisdiction. Yet, few nations have opted to pursue prosecutions against the pirates, being perfectly happy to foist them off on Kenya or simply to pay the ransom. Clearly priracy is a crime, but perhaps the aproach to modern day piracy, driven by poverty and political instability deserves a fresh look from the international legal community. One study pointed out that the hijackings are overlapping the World Food Programme shipping routes.  Somalia’s piracy problem is complicated or some would argue caused by the failure of the disintergration of government within the Somali state. Whether it was necessitated by legitimate fisherman seeking taxes for use of Somali waters or the more violent and aggressive hijackers, it needs to be brought under control, but we also need to start seeing a much more robust discussion of how the world community can assist Somalia in rebuilding its government. That will go much further towards solving the Somali pirate problem, then will trials of scores of individual pirates.

It is hard to get much public notice when you are yesterday’s tragedy. Apparently, the Special Court of Sierra Leone has been quietly running out of money. The court predicted it would not have enough funds to carry it past April. The Special Court does not have a UN funded budget like the ICTR and the ICTY, rather contributions are voluntary, and with so much else going on in the world, the flow of contributions had diminished. With the Charles Taylor trial still in progress having sufficient funds to “keep the court doors open” is extremely important. reported today that the court received $6.5 million in fresh contributions that will allow it to stay open through June, but the Taylor trial is expected to last through the end of 2009. The American/European style of justice is expensive. Those nations who volunteered to contribute should step up and do so. The court is in the middle of one of its most important trials. No one involved with the court needs to be distracted by trying to calculate whether the court can make it to the end of the trial. If a tribunal can be set up and financed to investigate the death of one man, Rafik Hariri of Lebanon, surely the funds can be found to finish the task of ending impunity for the deaths of over 20,000 civilians in Sierra Leone, the maiming of another 30,000 and the rape of over 200,000 women and girls.

Director of the CIA, Leon Panetta announced Thursday that The CIA had emptied its secret detention facilities and that they would be decommissioned. This is the latest step in accomplishing President Obama’s promise to have transparency in government and to return the US to the rule of law. The secret detention facilities or “black sites” were allowed to operate in foreign territories under former President Bush’s “War on Terror”. It is believed that harsh interrogation techniques which rose to the level of torture took place in these facilities, in contravention of US obligations under the Geneva Convention. President Obama has also taken steps to close Guantanamo, to release those detainees that do not pose a threat to the US, and to try those who do in regularly constituted civilian courts. These small steps will earn the US tremendous goodwill as both Guantanamo and the secret prisons were condemned by human rights organizations as well as from our allies all over the world and they are a welcome sign that we are on track to rejoin the world communities as a nation that respects and adheres to the rule of law.

After too many decades of delay, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia have finally gotten the trials of the last remaining Khmer Rouge defendants under way. The tribunal is a mixed court, sitting in Cambodia, with Cambodian judges and some international judges as well. Time has taken its toll on the quest for justice as most of the people who should have been tried for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians have already died themselves from natural causes. The trial of one of the five remaining opened this week. But, the trial takes place with a cloud over it. Defense lawyer, Jacques Verges, has repeated allegations made by other counsel as well that the Cambodian tribunal staff were required to pay kickbacks for their jobs, thereby destroying the legitimacy of the Tribunal. Evidently, the UN, aware of the allegations conducted an inquiry into the situation but did not release the findings. Cambodia will not get another opportunity to set the record straight on these atrocities. It is terribly important that the allegations of corruption be addressed openly, so the process can go forward with out taint.

In a sad note, the New York Times reported that for the most part, young Cambodians do not know about the Khmer Rouge atrocities despite the fact that almost all of their older relatives lost family members during this period. The subject has not been taught in schools and the children do not believe such brutality could actually have occurred. One wonders whether this is a good thing or not. This generation has not grown up with the fear and dread that haunts the survivors and that’s good. But one wonders, if they don’t know about the horror, would they be able to recognize should it come around again?

Perhaps only time will tell.

The former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, was sentenced last Tuesday to 25 years in prison for the deaths of 25 people. The trial lasted for fifteen months but did not get much press in the US. During Fujimori’s administration governement forces fought a brutal battle against the leftist group Tupac Amaru and Maoist Shining Path insurgencies. Atrocities were committed on both sides. Fujimori’s government is generally credited with bring economic stability back to Peru. However, during the course of the struggle 70,000 Peruvians were killed or disappeared. The case against Fujimori involved the killing of 25 civilians in two different attacks by “La Colina” a military death squad. He was also charged with the kidnapping of two journalists. During the course of the trial Fujimori repeatedly stated he was innocent because he did not order the deaths of anyone. He was clearly more defiant in the earlier stages of the trial, not acknowledging any human rights abuses. As the trial wound up, he took the stand in his own defense and acknowledged that some human rights abuses had occurred and that he was sorry for them but did not order them. He implored the court to remember that he bought peace and stability to 22 million Peruvians.

The people in Peru are split as to whether he should have been convicted. The relatives of the disappeared and killed pressed for his conviction while others hail him as a hero, including his daughter who is a possible presidential candidate for 2011.

Of course, in law, one can be guilty of a murder, even if they did not order it themselves. Fujimori had a responsibility as head of the state to prevent his army from abusing, killing and torturing civilians. If he did not actually order the killings, he should have punished offenders when it became known that the killings were occurring. His failure or unwillingness to do so, exposed him to criminal liability. If the Fujimori conviction withstands the appeal process, it will be a milestone, a signal to heads of states. One cannot use any and all tactics to fight insurgents. The rules of war fare apply even when the fight is a protracted one. We are living in interesting times, a former head of state found guilty of atrocities committed under his watch, a second on trial (Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia), and a sitting head of state under indictment for similar kinds of crimes. Perhaps these cases signal a real shift in the world’s acceptance of impunity for crimes committed against civilians. Now that would be revolutionary!!

Sudan’s president Hassan Omar al-Bashir thumbed his nose at the international community last week and made three trips outside of Sudan, despite the fact the ICC Prosecutor has indicted him and the court issued an arrest warrant against him. He is the first sitting head of state against whom an arrest warrant has been issued. The ICC indicted Bashir for crimes against humanity and war crimes in connection with the atrocities occurring in Darfur. The court stopped short of including charges of genocide as had been requested by the prosecutor. Bashir’s indictment and subsequent arrest warrant caused turmoil among African leaders and within the African Union. In fact, the AU petitioned the UN to delay both the indictment as well as the issuance of the arrest warrant, not because they support Bashir but because they have serious concerns about further destabilizing Sudan and the peace process underway. In addition, African leaders are a little wary of an international court that only seems to be indicting Africans. That is a legitimate concern. Most of the African countries are barely 50 years into independence from former colonial powers, and it is those same powers that now critique corruption and unstable African governments. You don’t have to scratch the surface of many conflicts in Africa to see the remnants of the old colonial hand and of contemporary World Bank polices. The ICC can gain some much needed credibility amongst African leaders by bringing a case against some humanitarian law violators who are NOT African. And there are several that are good potential targets. The ICC prosecutor says his office is working on bringing other cases. Time will tell whether the effort is sincere.

Nonetheless, on going support for Bashir is not warranted. The so-called peace process has been going on in the Darfur region since at least 2005 and no peace has been achieved. Darfurians continue to be attacked and die. And now Bashir is expelling all the NGOs who have been keeping hundreds of thousands of people fed. Thabo Mbeki, former president of SOuth Africa and now head of the AU’s Sudan special panel visited Sudan this past week to help further the peace negotiations. It may be too little too late. Archbishop Desmond Tutu appealed to the conscience of the continent to support the arrest of Bashir. But Bashir is not just Africa’s problem. Will the rest of the world have the resolve to do what they have promised to do? Will Bashir be arrested as he brazenly travels abroad? This is a fascinating case for the entire world. It is a time for African leaders to be especially courageous and take the high moral road, and for the rest of the nations who signed the Rome Treaty to do as they promised. Arrest Bashir and let justice run its course.