The Importance of Humanitarian Law

The Importance of Humanitarian Law

Humanitarian law is complex and frequently misunderstood. Institutional shortcomings often make it difficult for international courts to hold states accountable for human rights violations. However, a recent ruling from the International Criminal Court (ICC) on war crimes suggests that institutions are making valuable progress in addressing human rights issues.

On March 21, the ICC reached a verdict in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, a Congolese politician and former leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). Bemba Gombo was on trial for charges including rape, murder, and looting by members of the group in the Central African Republic during a coup that lasted from October 2002 to March 2003. The ICC found Bemba Gombo guilty—for the first time, holding a commander accountable for war crimes committed by subordinates. The ruling also deemed rape a weapon of war.

It is significant that a commander has been found responsible for the crimes of subordinates. This precedent will take away any deniability that commanders formerly possessed in combat for the actions of their subordinates. While in many militaries today commanders are responsible for the behavior of their soldiers, this recent decision represents an example of someone high up in the chain of command being held responsible at the tactical level. Some would argue that high-level politicians and commanders cannot control the actions of those operating at the tactical level. However, as demonstrated by the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities committed by the US in Iraq in 2003, on-the-ground oversight failures may lead to serious human rights violations. 

The verdict in the Bemba Gombo case represents a major shift towards acknowledging that a wide range of war tactics may be considered a war crime. Another new precedent has been set, holding that the use of sexual violence against civilians by combatants could be just as damaging as the use of conventional weapons.

The Bemba Gombo case serves as a good reminder of the breadth of humanitarian law and human rights; it shows that basic rights are not inherent for all people. Strong institutions are key in ensuring that violators of humanitarian law can be held responsible for their actions. Regardless of differences in cultural norms, human rights courts must stop tools of war such as rape.

The ICC’s March verdict does not infringe upon culture, as decisions regarding humanitarian law sometimes do. Rather, the verdict will help to stop atrocities from being committed against innocent civilians. A precedent of holding leaders accountable for the behavior of their subordinates in conflicts may serve as a deterrent for commanders in the future. Sexual violence in particular will not be tolerated in conflicts. 

Humanitarian law affects all people from all walks of life; it is not solely reserved for people in distant, war-torn lands. The scope of humanitarian law matters, as women’s rights should be viewed as integral rights—just like the rights to shelter or food.

Americans can get involved in protecting the rights that we often take for granted. Atrocities committed in the US may not be as clear or as common as those committed by Bemba Gombo. However, human rights violations still occur in the US, and we must be vigilant in bringing attention to these issues. We must pay attention to these issues abroad as well, protecting human rights throughout the world without disrespecting cultural differences.

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