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War and Accountability - Shifting responsibilities

15-04-2002 by Lord David Owen

Summary of an article from the April 2002 issue of FORUM. "Accountability before the law ... is going to be a permanent feature of humanitarianism in the twenty-first century."

The thought that you may one day be held accountable for your acts in war has always been overridden by the need to survive and to win. However, the laws that govern conduct in war are today impinging with ever greater force on the consciousness of all those involved in armed conflict. Journalists and parliamentarians in ever more countries are striving to expose breaches of these international laws.

The Second World War was unusual in that the Allies demanded unconditional surrender. In all wars since, there have been dialogue and negotiations. This concept of simultaneously fighting and negotiating raises many difficult questions, particularly as regards accountability. If it involves outside parties, negotiating can be construed as those outsiders at best acquiescing in unacceptable conduct on the part of the fighting forces. At worst, it can look like culpable laxity.

This also applies to humanitarian relief, particularly if bringing relief to civilians in need means, in practice, providing supplies to warring parties themselves, irrespective of their record in abiding by humanitarian principles.

 The Yugoslavia Tribunal  

As co-chairmen of the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia, Cyrus Vance and the author recommended that an international criminal court should be established. They deliberately distanced that court from the International Conference, whose primary purpose was to promote immediate humanitarian relief and peace negotiations.

The legal case for NATO’s intervention in the Balkans depended on the extent to which there is, within the UN Charter, an overriding respons ibility to uphold its humanitarian principles. Since the action to alleviate the plight of the Iraqi Kurds in 1991, a legal framework had been built up to support the primacy of humanitarian principles within the UN Charter.

During the bombing, every NATO target was assessed legally not just for its military justification but also for its relevance to the campaign on humanitarian grounds. Even the use of the term " war " was banned within NATO on legal grounds in favour of describing all actions as part of a " humanitarian intervention " . With its initial reluctance to select civilian targets and to fight with tanks and troops on the ground, NATO came close to being defeated by Milosevic.

NATO's legal accountability is indicative of how the distribution of responsibilities has changed. It is not impossible that Milosevic will show in The Hague that NATO had been acting illegally in Kosovo while his own actions against Kosovo Albanians will be judged to be war crimes. Milosevic may also try to call as witnesses some of the people with whom he negotiated either over peace proposals or military deployments for humanitarian purposes. The impartiality and effectiveness of future outside negotiators could, however, be compromised. Should, for example, Sadako Ogata, then head of UNHCR, be expected to give evidence if Milosevic called her as a witness? She considered, quite correctly, that dialogue with Milosevic was indispensable if humanitarian convoys in Bosnia were to get through to isolated communities. These are relatively new moral dilemmas.

 Public opinion  

There is no discernible logic to the way the world reacts in conflicts. It tolerated the virtual flattening of Vukovar. Yet the world felt far more challenged by the shelling of Sarajevo. Milosevic’s decision to force a mass exodus of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo during NATO’s bombing was an enormous political mistake. It brought worldwide condemnation and helped solidify public opinion in NATO countries against Serbia, which made it far easier for the bombing to continue.

" Real-time reporting” by journalists can have a major impact on public opinion. In our fast-paced, image-driven media world, however, complex situations are simplified into brief clips, and it is no surprise when the UN soldier or humanitarian field worker find their courage and hard work cast in a less than favourable light.

 Less "clarity" in war  

The lesson of recent wars has been the readiness of the fighters to involve civilians as victims in old-fashioned sieges, with disruption of electricity and food, water and gas supplies. This has meant humanitarian organizations crossing front lines. It has produced an intermingling of humanitarian workers, fighters and peace-keepers and, inevitably, a degree of confusion. 

Perhaps these new trends in warfare will be only temporary, but experience in Central Africa seems to indicate that it is not going to go away; and complex forms of humanitarian involvement are increasing. Military forces are now certainly becoming used to carrying out humanitarian tasks and are being taught humanitarian skills.

Yet despite all these trends, the author detects a greater sense of public responsibility and readiness to accept humanitarian involvement. For better or for worse, people increasingly view conflict – wherever it occurs – as something that affects them.

Demands for accountability can be annoying, frustrating and time-consuming but it also enables one to understand more and work better together with others. Accountability before the law – whether national or international – before the press and before democratic debate is going to be a permanent feature of humanitarianism in the twenty-first century. Those who accept this challenge will be better able to adapt and thus enhance humanitarian response.