Friday, February 27, 2009

ICTY Acquits Former Serbian President in Kosovo War Crimes Case

On Feb. 26, 2009, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) acquitted the former Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic, of charges of war crimes stemming from Milutinovic's role in the Serbian campaign of violence in Kosovo in the late 1990's. The ICTY held that it was the former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who directed and orchestrated the violence in Kosovo, and that Milutinovic was nothing but his straw man, who had no direct power or control over the region (click here to read ICTY judgment: The ICTY prosecutors, although disappointed by Milutinovic's acquittal, scored a victory nonetheless in the tribunal's guilty verdict of five other Serbian commanders in Kosovo: the former Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, ex-Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, former army generals Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic, and Serbian police Gen. Sreten Lukic. Reactions to these convictions were predictably mixed. Most Kosovar Albanians welcomed the ICTY's willingness to punish those proven to have committed war crimes, but most Serbs interpreted the verdict as yet another indication of the anti-Serbian political inclination of the tribunal.
Who is right? Do the Serbs have any ground to feel victimized by the ICTY and singled out as culpable ones by the world community, when almost all other ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia committed similarly reprehensible crimes? Maybe. The ICTY, since its inception, has indicted 161 suspects and most of them are Serbs. The ICTY did try the former Kosovo Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, but acquitted him of all charges, in a direct blow to the Serbs who viewed Haradinaj as a war criminal and proponent of terrorist tactics against the Serbian population of Kosovo. According to Ivica Dacic, the current Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, the verdicts have confirmed that "this entire process was political." While I do believe that the ICTY correctly convicted most of the indicted Serbian war criminals, I also think that in order to appear more neutral and credible toward all parties involved in the former Yugoslavian civil war, the ICTY should have indicted and convicted more individuals from other ethnic groups, such as the Croats, the Bosnian Muslims, and the Kosovars. Blind justice should be blind toward all, including the Serbs.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Promise Not to Torture: Is President Obama Serious?

In his first address to the United States Congress, President Obama promised that the United States would not torture anyone (click here for the full text of the presidential address: In fact, President Obama went as far as to state that "without exception and equivocation.... the United States of America does not torture." I believe President Obama in his belief that we should not torture. But I do not believe all of our policy executioners' beliefs as to what torture means.
Very few world leaders have ever admitted that they endorse torture. Israel, a state outspoken about its harsh interrogation techniques of terrorist suspects, claims that it uses "moderate physical pressure" on such prisoners. The English police similarly used harsh interrogation methods against IRA suspects. Neither country ever admitted that it tortures, and both countries are signatories to the Convention Against Torture, an international treaty banning all sorts of torture and degrading and inhumane treatment. President George W. Bush publicly denied that the United States ever tortured anyone. Yet, in the recent years, it has come to light that several Guantanamo and CIA detainees have been water-boarded - a treatment that under most international treaties would qualify as torture. Other questionable techniques that could raise to the level of torture and that have been used by American interrogators include the use of sleep and sensory deprivation, awkward positions, intimidation by dogs, and mild physical contact such as shaking, only to name a few.
Why is it that world leaders routinely deny their endorsement of torture, while their countries' police and security agencies seem to engage in techniques that do in fact qualify as torture? The problem lies with the definition of torture in international law, and its application within domestic legal systems. The Convention Against Torture defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." (click here for the full text of the CAT: Yet, different countries have implemented this provision in different ways, by adding reservations, declarations, and understandings to the CAT in their implementing domestic legislation. Thus, in the United States, the meaning of the CAT has been modified in an understanding, specifying that an act, in order to constitute torture, must be "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering...." 18. U.S.C. 2340-2340A. In light of this definition, the U.S. Army Field Manual 34-52 authorizes specific interrogation techniques, such as the use of psychological ploys, shouting at detainees or invoking a sense of fear, dietary manipulation, change of scenery, and isolation. Moreover, the same manual expressly prohibits the use of force, mental torture, threats, and insults, inter alia. Yet, our interrogators, as proven through numerous reports, documents, personal accounts, and the like, have abused the scope of their interrogative authority throughout the Bush years (click here for one such report: While I believe that our former president and some of his high-level cabinet members are to blame, I also believe that many interrogators overstepped the bounds of their authority inadvertently. The fact that there seemed to be no repercussions for such overstepping of boundaries only contributed to enhance a sense of power and impunity for the interrogators. Thus, shouting at detainees turned into shaking or slapping them; isolation turned into complete and prolonged solitary confinement, and invoking a sense of fear turned into threatening detainees with barking dogs.
I fear that the same thing could happen under President Obama. Interrogators are human and make mistakes and unless our Army Field Manual is updated to more specifically ban questionable interrogation techniques, such techniques may be used (again) in an erroneous belief that they are permissible. What should President Obama do to deal with this issue? Instead of promising that the United States would not torture, he could adopt a policy of zero tolerance toward interrogators who abuse prisoners. In order to assert "without exception or equivocation" that we do not torture, President Obama needs to do much more to assure himself that this is truly the case.

The Taliban Take Over Swat Valley in Pakistan: Why Nobody Seems to Care?

Over the last few months, Taliban forces have taken over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, located approximately 1o0 miles to the northwest of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital (click here to read more about the Swat Valley: The Taliban have imposed Sharia law, have closed down all schools for girls, and have bombed and torched those schools that have refused to close down. Thousands of refugees have already fled the Taliban rule and have relocated either to Islamabad or to other parts of Pakistan. In an effort to halt violence, the Pakistani government signed a truce with the Taliban forces on Feb. 16, 2009. Under the terms of this peace agreement, the Pakistani government officially recognized the imposition of Sharia law in the Swat Valley and agreed to suspend any military efforts against the Taliban. The Taliban have won! They managed to take over a strategically significant portion of the Pakistani territory with relatively little resistance from the Pakistani government and from the rest of the world. The media coverage of the Swat Valley events has been scarce (click here for media articles on the Swat Valley:,2933,494446,00.html), and only "elite" programs like NPR broadcasts and PBS shows seem to carry any policy and politics discussions on this issue. Moreover, the United Nations has been passive and none of its organs have rushed to condemn the Taliban, or the Pakistani government's passivity. NATO countries have expressed concern (and nothing more), and so has the United States, although only through "anonymous" government officials citing the delicate relations with Pakistan as reason for the absence of any official American condemnation of the Taliban actions.
Why is it that nobody seems to care about the Swat Valley? Is it simply a forgotten part of the Earth where warlords have always ruled and tribal modes of life prevail, no matter who the current leaders are and how brutal and unacceptable their reign is? Or, is it just that Pakistan as a nuclear weapon state poses too much of a threat for the rest of the world, and that the Pakistani interior policy choices seem to receive a blanket approval, no matter what? I believe the latter to be true - our "no matter what" attitude with respect to the Pakistani government's laissez faire policy toward the Taliban is based on the fact that Pakistan poses a nuclear threat. But I also believe that our attitude is wrong for many reasons.
For one, while Pakistan poses a nuclear threat in general, the Taliban expansion into yet another geographic area poses a more ominous problem. The Taliban are ruthless: they kill and behead their enemies, they harass women, and they care little about what the rest of the world thinks of them. In fact, they seem to act despite the rest of the world - to annoy, to harass, and to intimidate. Moreover, the global passivity toward the Taliban, and the Pakistani government, signals a dangerous precedent of laissez faire world politics, where separatist, fringe groups can assert themselves in all sorts of ways (including military action) without any repercussions. This kind of global passivity can only lead to the proliferation of chaos in remote areas such as eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, and can potentially spread to other countries, like Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, only to name a few. Finally, from the perspective of human rights, letting the Taliban get away with the insurgency and violence in the Swat Valley signals that the world cares little about the respect of the human integrity, despite all the rhetoric and all the so-called protections embedded in international legal documents.
What should be the correct response toward the Taliban? Military action, either in the form of a humanitarian intervention sponsored by an alliance of willing countries, or in the form of a United Nations Security Council Chapter VII use of force against Pakistan. There is precedent for both in the recent decades (Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) and the world should not be shy about relying on it to oust the Taliban and restore a democratic rule of law throughout Pakistan.