A brighter light on Russian war crimes

Calling out crimes like genocide, such as the U.S. just did for Myanmar, may deter violence against civilians in other conflicts.

An unexploded Grad rocket is seen at a kindergarten playground in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Feb, 26.

On Monday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to send a subtle and timely message to officials in the Kremlin. He designated the military slaughter of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority in 2016-2017 as genocide. The possible message: Any official in Russia who assists in the intentional mass killing of civilians in Ukraine could someday face a similar prospect of international justice.

“By learning to spot the signs of the worst atrocities, we’re empowered to prevent them,” Mr. Blinken said.

With the announcement, the United States has now concluded that genocide has occurred eight times since the Holocaust, bringing legal weight to prosecuting war crimes in various courts while encouraging other countries to follow suit. Not every designation has resulted in prison time for perpetrators, yet each one may have served as a deterrent. Top officials in a dictator’s inner circle, for example, might rebel or try to thwart a slaughter to later avoid capture and prosecution.

In 1945, a top Nazi official surrendered German troops in Italy in an apparent deal to escape prosecution at the Nuremberg trials. In the case of Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, fear of prosecution could possibly cause an official under President Vladimir Putin to save Ukrainian civilians from harm.

Fear may not be the only incentive. When enough countries cite war crimes, it could prick the conscience of those in the midst of committing atrocities and they could then replace evil with good by, for example, offering up evidence for a later trial.

Ukraine itself has played an important role in the history of legal terms for the worst in wars, according to scholar Philippe Sands in a 2016 book, “East West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity.’” 

In the western city now known as Lviv, two law scholars who went to the same university in the 1920s, Eli Lauterpacht and Alex Lemkin, introduced the concept of war crimes as World War II developed. Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1944 to describe the mass killing of Jews. Lauterpacht introduced the idea of crimes against humanity. Their work was later adopted by the United Nations.

Today, the use of universal principles to curb war violence is now commonplace. Myanmar’s military, for example, could face legal hazards for its crimes if a pro-democracy civilian rebellion succeeds. The International Criminal Court is investigating crimes against humanity related to the military’s forced deportation of more than 740,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. “The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them,” said Secretary Blinken.

The wheels of international justice grind slowly. But as they grind, they could force war criminals to think twice.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to A brighter light on Russian war crimes
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today