Holding War Criminals Accountable

Read testimony from Gayle Smith to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law.

“We must focus on legislation not lamentation; we must not just look in horror [on Darfur],” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law at Tuesday’s hearing, “From Nuremberg to Darfur: Accountability for Crimes Against Humanity.” Testimony, including that of Gayle Smith, Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress Action Fund and co-chair of the ENOUGH project, focused on fulfilling Nuremberg ideals of accountability by making crimes against humanity illegal in the United States.

Crimes against humanity are any acts of persecution or large-scale atrocities against a specific population, including but not limited to torture, rape, murder, and enslavement. Unfortunately, war criminals cannot simply be deported to their home countries and tried there for their crimes since many of those nations’ infrastructures and judicial systems are in a state of collapse. Yet since these crimes are not illegal in the United States, the perpetrators usually have to be tried for a much more inconsequential crime than they actually committed.

Smith, along with the other speakers, argued for legislation that would make crimes against humanity illegal in the United States, in order to “make sure America is on the right side of history.” She lauded Former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s trial for war crimes at the Hague and the establishment of the International Criminal Court, but declared these efforts insufficient. Only with sustained and robust peace processes in Darfur and other warring African regions, protection for civilians, and most importantly, accountability, will the perpetrators of crimes against humanity be stopped.

Smith outlined four key reasons why we should focus on accountability: it is the right thing to do and reinforces the United States’ moral foundations; it would strengthen the structure and influence of the rule of law; it is in our national interests since crimes against humanity often lead to collapses of states, violence, and instability; and accountability can be a “sledgehammer” with which to uphold the law and bring crimes against humanity to an end.

Smith also encouraged the United States to pressure China to help in Darfur since its dependence on oil in the Sudan has helped fund the genocide. “They don’t want to be seen…as championing the cause of genocide,” she said, citing the fact that this summer’s Olympics were already being renamed the “Darfur Olympics.”

Diane Orentlicher, professor at American University, and a leading expert on international criminal tribunals, admired the United States’ leadership in the Nuremberg trials and Genocide Accountability Act of 2007, but like Smith, she said it was not enough. She called it “desperately important” that there be a law that forbids all mass atrocities, not just genocide. Crimes against humanity are inhumane acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

Co-founder and president of Team Darfur, Joey Cheek, emphasized that mass killings and atrocities in the Sudan are a result of conscious and willful decisions as opposed to a natural disaster. He demanded more than sympathy and money.

“What I have come to realize is that it takes much more than awareness,” Cheek said. “In the face of crimes such as these, people must be willing to fight back.” He called for an Olympic Truce, in which world leaders would use considerable effort to create and promote peace during the time of the Olympics. In addition to a renewed peace process, Cheek mentioned increased humanitarian assistance and the deployment of peacekeepers.

Daoud Hari, author of The Translator: A Tribeman’s Memoir of Darfur, and one of only five Darfur refugees resettled by the United States, put a human face on the tragedy as he described his experience in the country and the atrocities he witnessed. Although he said that hearing about these tortures, rapes, and the murder of children had, “destroyed his soul,” he worked to expose the situation to the world.

“I honestly believed that the people who run the world we live in today will not allow this outrage to continue, if only they know about it,” Hari said.

Read testimony from Gayle Smith to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law.