Author Archive for
Kevin Jon Heller

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Points of Order!

by Kevin Jon Heller

The new blog, which will focus on “multilateralism, international organizations, and world order” — no small task there! — includes Friends-of-OJ David Bosco and David Kaye, as well as my SOAS colleague Leslie Vinjamuri. Here is the complete contributor list:

  • David Bosco is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine.
  • Martin Edwards is associate professor at Seton Hall University and director of the Center for United Nations and Global Governance Studies.
  • David Kaye is clinical professor of law at the School of Law, University of California-Irvine. He was appointed special rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression by the UN Human Rights Council.
  • Cymie Payne is assistant professor at Rutgers University, focusing on international and environmental law.
  • Ted Piccone is a senior fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy and Latin America Initiative in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
  • Oliver Stuenkel is assistant professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in São Paulo, where he coordinates the São Paulo branch of the School of History and Social Science (CPDOC) and the executive program in International Relations
  • Leslie Vinjamuri is co-director of the Centre for the International Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice and associate professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.  She is an Associate Fellow in the US Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute for International Affairs.

Recent posts address climate finance, Brasilian foreign policy, the IMF, and the ICC’s preliminary examination in Afghanistan. All of the writing is very high quality, so make sure to check Points of Order out!

Do Attacks on ISIS in Syria Justify the “Unwilling or Unable” Test?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Almost three years ago to the day, I critiqued an article by Ashley Deeks that argued the right of self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter extends to situations in which states are “unwilling or unable” to prevent non-state actors from using their territory to launch armed attacks. As I noted in my post, Deeks herself admitted that she had “found no cases in which states clearly assert that they follow the test out of a sense of legal obligation (i.e., the opinio juris aspect of custom).”

When Deeks wrote her article, ISIS did not yet exist — and the US and other states had not started attacking ISIS in Syria. It is not surprising, therefore, that Deeks is now relying on the international response to ISIS to argue, in the words of a new post at Lawfare, that “the ‘unwilling or unable’ test is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine.”

There is no question that the US believes the “unwilling or unable” test is consistent with Art. 51. As Jens noted a few months ago, the US officially invoked the test with regard to ISIS and the Khorasan Group in a letter to the Security Council. Moreover, the UK seems to agree with the US: according to Deeks, the UK submitted a similar Art. 51 letter to the Security Council, stating that it supports international efforts to defend Iraq “by striking ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria” — a position that, in her view,”implicitly adopts the ‘unwilling or unable’ test.”

Deeks does not provide a link to the UK letter, but I have little doubt she is characterizing the UK’s position accurately. I have significant issues, though, with the rest of her post, which argues that three other factors related to the international response to ISIS support the “unwilling or unable” test. Let’s go in order. Here is Deeks’ first argument:

[S]tates such as Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, which also have undertaken airstrikes in Syria, presumably are relying on the same legal theory as the United States and UK.  (That said, those states have not proffered clear statements about their legal theories.)

There are two problems with this claim. To begin with, even if the four states are relying on “unwilling or unable” to justify their attacks on ISIS in Syria, they have not said so publicly — which means that their actions cannot qualify as opinio juris in support of the test. The publicity requirement is Customary Law 101.

More importantly, though, and pace Deeks, it is actually exceptionally unlikely that these states support the “unwilling or unable” test. All four are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which has consistently rejected the test, most notably in response to Turkey’s cross-border attacks on the PKK in Iraq (see Ruys at p. 431):

We strongly condemn the repeated actions of Turkish armed forces violating the territorial integrity of Iraq under the pretext of fighting guerrilla elements hiding inside Iraqi territory. … We also reject the so-called ‘hot pursuit’ measures adopted by Turkey to justify such actions that are abhorrent to international law and to the norms of practice amongst States.

To be sure, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE have not rejected the “unwilling or unable” test since 9/11 — the statement by NAM above was made in 2000. But there is little reason to believe that their understanding of Art. 51 has fundamentally changed over the past decade. On the contrary, all four are also members of the Arab League, and in 2006 the Arab League formally rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon (see Ruys at p. 453).

Here is Deeks’ second argument:

Iraq vocally has supported strikes within Syria.

This is not surprising, given that ISIS is using Syria as a base for attacks on Iraq. But does Iraq’s support for airstrikes on ISIS in Syria count as opinio juris in favour of the “unwilling or unable” test? I doubt it. After all, not only is Iraq a member of the Arab League, it consistently denounced Turkey’s attacks on PKK bases in its territory between 2007 and 2008 as inconsistent with its sovereignty (see Ruys at p. 461). Iraq’s attitude toward the “unwilling or unable” test thus seems driven exclusively by political opportunism; there is no indication that it considers the test to represent customary international law.

Here is Deeks third argument:

Syria itself has not objected to these intrusions into its territory.

This factor seriously complicates Deeks’ argument. Another word for “not objecting” is “consenting.” And if Syria is consenting to attacks on ISIS in its territory, it is problematic to simply assume — as Deeks does — that all such attacks provide evidence in favour of the “unwilling or unable” test. The US and UK may not want to rely on Syrian consent to justify their attacks. But it seems likely that Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE are relying on Syrian consent rather than Syrian unwillingness or inability to justify their attacks on ISIS in Syria — particularly given their traditional narrow understanding of Art. 51.

Finally, it is important to note what Deeks says immediately after claiming that “[i]In view of these developments, the ‘unwilling or unable’ test is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine”:

Whether other European states ultimately commit to airstrikes in Syria will be informative; to date, states such as France, Denmark, and Belgium only have provided support to strikes against ISIS within Iraq, not Syria.

This is an important admission, because it means that a member of P-5 and two other important Western states have suggested they are not comfortable with using the “unwilling or unable” test to justify attacks on ISIS in Syria.

So, to recap: the US and UK clearly support the “unwilling or unable” test; Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE are likely basing their willingness to attack ISIS in Syria on Syrian consent; Iraq has a completely opportunistic approach to the “unwilling or unable” test; and France, Denmark, and Belgium seem to reject the test, even if they have not done so explicitly.

And yet we are supposed to believe that the “unwilling or unable” test “is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine”?

OTP Suspends Darfur Investigation

by Kevin Jon Heller

This is quite big news, and I hope it doesn’t get lost in the welter of voices discussing the collapse of the Kenyatta prosecution. Here is a snippet from the Washington Post:

The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court told the U.N. Security Council on Friday she is stopping her investigations in Sudan’s chaotic Darfur region for now because no one has been brought to justice in a decade and the council has done little or nothing to help.

Darfur’s situation is deteriorating and the brutality of crimes is increasing, but there have been no discussions with the council for “concrete solutions,” Fatou Bensouda said. She demanded a new approach.

Darfur was the council’s first referral to the ICC, which is seen as a court of last resort for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

[snip]

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to appear before you and purport to be updating you when all I am doing is repeating the same things I have said over and over again,” Bensouda told the council, which has been divided on how to press Sudan for cooperation. This was the 20th time the prosecutor has briefed the council on Darfur.

“Given this council’s lack of foresight on what should happen in Darfur, I am left with no choice but to hibernate investigative activities in Darfur as I shift resources to other urgent cases,” Bensouda said.

It’s never good news when any OTP investigation falters, but it’s particularly disturbing in the context of the first Security Council referral to the ICC. Unfortunately, as many have noted (Mark Kersten, Dov Jacobs, me), the Security Council has an unfortunate tendency to treat the ICC like a political football — referring a situation to the Court when it needs to appear concerned about mass atrocity, then abandoning it when an attention-challenged international community has moved on to a different situation. Darfur is a perfect example of that troubling dynamic.

There is, however, a silver lining to the OTP’s decision to suspend the Darfur investigation: it indicates that Fatou Bensouda is getting tired of being Charlie Brown to the Security Council’s Lucy. I’m quite certain the Security Council would have preferred the Darfur investigation to continue ad infinitum: as long as the OTP is trying to investigate, the ICC will get the lion’s share of the blame for the failure to get Bashir. Now Bensouda has cleverly shifted the terrain, making it clear that the problem is the Security Council, not the ICC. Whether the Security Council will care is an open question — but at least Bensouda will take some of the heat off the ICC regarding Darfur. The last thing the Court needs now is additional bad publicity…

The ACLU Endorses Blanket Amnesty for Torture

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am very rarely shocked, but that was my response to yesterday’s editorial in the New York Times by Anthony Romero — the Executive Director of the ACLU — arguing that Obama should pre-emptively pardon all of the high-ranking officials responsible for the Bush administration’s systematic torture regime at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, various Eastern European black sites, etc. Here is a painful snippet:

Mr. Obama could pardon George J. Tenet for authorizing torture at the C.I.A.’s black sites overseas, Donald H. Rumsfeld for authorizing the use of torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison, David S. Addington, John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee for crafting the legal cover for torture, and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for overseeing it all.

[snip]

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

I struggle to discern even the basic logic of this argument. I guess the key is that “[p]ardons would make clear that crimes were committed,” the idea being that you can’t pardon someone for doing something legal. But Romero’s argument has an obvious fatal flaw: “pre-emptive pardons” might make clear that Obama believes Bush administration officials committed torture, but they would say nothing about whether the Bush administration officials themselves believe they did. Romero is not calling for a South-African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would condition amnesty on confession of wrongdoing; he wants to skip the confession part and go right to the amnesty. And the Bush administration’s torturers continue to believe that they did nothing wrong. To the contrary, they still cling to their puerile belief that they were the true patriots, Ubermenschen willing to do what lesser men and women wouldn’t to save the US from the existential threat of terrorism. No amount of evidence will pierce the veil of their self-delusion — and no pardon will have any effect whatsoever on their own perceived righteousness.

That Romero fails to see this is baffling enough. But I’m flabbergasted by his assertion that a blanket amnesty for torture — the correct description of his proposal — is necessary to make clear “that future architects and perpetrators should beware.” Beware what? Not prosecution, unless we are naive enough to believe that there is deterrent value in saying to the Bush administration’s torturers, “okay, we’re giving you a free pass for your international and domestic crimes this time — but next time will be a different story.” I’m sure future Bushes, Cheneys, Rices, Rumsfelds, Yoos, and Bybees will be positively quaking in their boots.

It’s also important to note something that Romero completely fails to address in his editorial — the message blanket amnesty for torture would send to the rest of the world. It’s bad enough that the US portrays itself as a champion of human rights abroad while it simply ignores its obligations under the Torture Convention. But there is a significant difference between lacking the political will to prosecute the Bush administration’s torturers and having the political will to offer them a blanket amnesty. If Obama “pre-emptively pardons” those who committed torture, how could the US ever criticise another government that decides to choose “peace” over justice? Some states in the world can at least plausibly argue that amnestying the previous regime’s crimes is necessary to avoid political destabilisation and future conflict. But the US is not one of them. Republicans and Democrats will not start killing each other if Obama does not pardon the Bush administration’s torturers. Ted Cruz will not lead a convoy of tanks emblazoned with the Texas flag on Washington.

But if Obama does issue Romero’s pardons, you can guarantee that future government officials will turn once again to torture the first time it seems “necessary” to counter a serious threat to the Republic. (Such as ISIS, which will no doubt be exploding Ebola-ridden suicide bombs in downtown Chicago any day now.) That’s the logic of criminality, at least when the crimes are perpetrated by the powerful — impunity simply emboldens them further. Give them an inch, they will take Iraq.

The bottom line is this: you want to make clear that torture is wrong, that torturers are criminals, and that future torturers should beware? You don’t offer blanket amnesty to the Bush administration officials who systematically tortured.

You prosecute them.

The OTP’s Afghanistan Investigation: A Response to Vogel

by Kevin Jon Heller

As a number of commentators have recently noted, the latest report on the OTP’s preliminary-examination activities indicates that the OTP is specifically considering whether US forces are responsible for war crimes relating to detainee treatment in Afghanistan — something it only hinted at in its 2013 report. Here are the relevant statements (pp. 22-23):

94. The Office has been assessing available information relating to the alleged abuse of detainees by international forces within the temporal jurisdiction of the Court. In particular, the alleged torture or ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees by US armed forces in Afghanistan in the period 2003-2008 forms another potential case identified by the Office. In accordance with the Presidential Directive of 7 February 2002, Taliban detainees were denied the status of prisoner of war under article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention but were required to be treated humanely. In this context, the information available suggests that between May 2003 and June 2004, members of the US military in Afghanistan used so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” against conflict-related detainees in an effort to improve the level of actionable intelligence obtained from interrogations. The development and implementation of such techniques is documented inter alia in declassified US Government documents released to the public, including Department of Defense reports as well as the US Senate Armed Services Committee’s inquiry. These reports describe interrogation techniques approved for use as including food deprivation, deprivation of clothing, environmental manipulation, sleep adjustment, use of individual fears, use of stress positions, sensory deprivation (deprivation of light and sound), and sensory overstimulation.

95. Certain of the enhanced interrogation techniques apparently approved by US senior commanders in Afghanistan in the period from February 2003 through June 2004, could, depending on the severity and duration of their use, amount to cruel treatment, torture or outrages upon personal dignity as defined under international jurisprudence.

I highly recommend the posts by David Bosco at Multilateralist and Ryan Goodman at Just Security on the OTP’s report. But I have reservations about Ryan Vogel’s post at Lawfare. Although Vogel makes some good points about the political implications of the OTP’s decision to investigate US actions, his legal criticisms of the OTP are based on a problematic understanding of how gravity and complementarity function in the Rome Statute.

First, there is this claim:

Whatever one’s views regarding U.S. detention policy in Afghanistan from 2003-2008, the alleged U.S. conduct is surely not what the world had in mind when it established the ICC to address “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole.”  The ICC was designed to end impunity for the most egregious and shocking breaches of the law, and it is hard to see how alleged detainee abuse by U.S. forces meets that standard.

It is not completely clear what Vogel’s objection is, but it’s likely one of two things: (1) he does not believe US actions in Afghanistan qualify as torture; or (2) he does not believe any acts of torture the US did commit are collectively serious enough to justify a formal OTP investigation.The first objection is irrelevant: whether acts qualify as torture is for the ICC to decide, not the US. The second objection is more serious, but is based on a misunderstanding of the difference between situational gravity and case gravity…

Would Paddington Prefer Christmas Island?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m sure most of us will go see the live-action movie version of PADDINGTON, which recently hit the big screen. And we will do so, of course, because we are interested in what Paddington’s residence status says about the UK’s harsh immigration laws. Fortunately, Colin Yeo has prepared a nice primer for us at the Free Movement blog, run by the excellent Garden Court Chambers. Here’s a snippet:

Paddington stows away and deliberately avoids the immigration authorities on arrival. He is in formal legal terms an illegal entrant and as such commits a criminal offence under section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971. It is an offence punishable by up to six months in prison. If or when detected by the authorities it is more likely he would simply be removed back to Peru than that he would be prosecuted, though. To avoid that fate he would need to make out a legal basis to stay.

Incidentally, for offering a home to Paddington — or harbouring him, as the Home Office would have it — Mr and Mrs Brown could potentially face prosecution under section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971, entitled “Assisting unlawful immigration to member State”.

Yeo goes on to explain why Paddington will have a difficult time justifying his illegal entry into the UK — and will probably end up in a poorly-run private detention centre. (Do I hear sequel? Perhaps it could be entitled PADDINGTON MAKES A NEW FRIEND.)

It could be worse, though. Paddington could’ve tried to sneak into Australia. If he had, he’d likely be sent to the ironically-named Christmas Island, Oz’s very own prison camp.

Why Can’t US Courts Understand IHL?

by Kevin Jon Heller

While researching an essay on the use of analogy in IHL, I had the misfortune of reading Al Warafi v. Obama, a recent habeas case involving an alleged member of the Taliban. Al Warafi argued that even if he was a member of the Taliban — which he denied — he was entitled to be treated in detention as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 of the First Geneva Convention (GC I), which provides that “[m]edical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded or sick, or in the prevention of disease… shall be respected and protected in all circumstances.” That protected status is very important, because other provisions in GC I — as well as in the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which extends the rules of GC I — require medics to be given a number of protections and privileges that other detainees do not enjoy.

The District Court rejected Al Warafi’s argument, concluding (p. 17) that he did not qualify as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 because the Taliban had not provided him with “the proof required by the Convention — that is, official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status under Article 24. Absent such identification, petitioner simply cannot prove that he qualifies as Article 24 personnel.” In reaching the conclusion, the District Court specifically relied on paragraph 734 of the Commentary to AP I:

A soldier with medical duties is actually an able-bodied person who might well engage in combat; a medical vehicle could be used to transport ammunition rather than the wounded or medical supplies. Thus it is essential for medical personnel, units, materials and transports to be identified in order to ensure the protection to which they are entitled, which is identical to that accorded the wounded, sick and shipwrecked.

The DC Circuit then rejected Al Warafi’s appeal of the District Court’s decision on the same grounds.

I was puzzled by paragraph 734 when I came across it in the District Court’s decision. It seemed obvious that a medic who was not wearing the identification required by GC I and AP I could be targeted without violating the principle of distinction. It seemed equally obvious that a captured medic without proper identification might have a difficult time convincing his captors of his status. But I found it difficult to believe GC I and AP 1 would actually deprive a medic of his protected status simply because he did not have the proper identification. Doing so would serve no humanitarian purpose whatsoever, assuming the individual could establish his status by other means.

But paragraph 734 said what it said. So surely the District Court’s conclusion was correct. Right?

Wrong. Had the District Court bothered to read the next twelve paragraphs in the Commentary to AP I, it would have realised that, in fact, proper identification is not necessary for a medic to be entitled to protected status. Here is paragraph 746 of the Commentary to AP I:

The basic principle is stated in this first paragraph. The right to respect and protection of medical personnel and medical objects would be meaningless if they could not be clearly recognized. The Parties to the conflict therefore have a great interest in seeing that such personnel and objects can be identified by the enemy. Thus the rule laid down here is in the interests of those who are responsible for observing it. In fact, it would be the medical personnel and medical objects of the Party concerned which would suffer from poor means of identification and which could become the target of an enemy that had not identified them. Yet it must be emphasized that the means of identification do not constitute the right to protection, and from the moment that medical personnel or medical objects have been identified, shortcomings in the means of identification cannot be used as a pretext for failing to respect them.

In other words: the District Court and the DC Circuit should not have dismissed Al Warafi’s habeas petition on the ground the Taliban had not issued him with “official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status.” Neither GC I nor AP I require such identification.

Another day, another misunderstanding of IHL by US courts. Sad, but predictable.

ICC/Palestine Event at Doughty Street Chambers

by Kevin Jon Heller

London-area readers interested in the ICC and Palestine might want to attend the following event, which is co-sponsored by Chatham House and Doughty Street Chambers (where I’m an academic member). It should be good, despite my participation:

Milestones in International Criminal Justice: The ICC and Palestine

Date: Tuesday 02 December 2014

Time: 18.00 – 19.30

Location: 54 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS

Venue: Doughty Street Chambers

Speakers: Elizabeth Wilmshurst, Professor Kevin Jon Heller, Professor Yaël Ronen, Stephanie Barbour, Head of Amnesty International Centre for International Justice

CPD: 1.5

Fee: Free

Availability: Book a seat

In 2009 Palestine lodged a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the ICC but only two years later the ICC Prosecutor decided to close its preliminary examination of the situation in Palestine because of uncertainties surrounding Palestine’s statehood.

The meeting will explore the implications of the UN General Assembly’s decision to accord to Palestine the status of non-member observer state in 2012, issues concerning Palestine’s prospective accession to the Rome Statute, and the possibility for Palestine to lodge a retroactive declaration giving the Court jurisdiction over Israeli military operations in Gaza such as ‘Cast Lead’ and ‘Protective Edge’.

Please note this event will be followed by a drinks reception.

This event is held in association with Doughty Street Chambers and is accredited with 1.5 CPD points.

Hope to see (some of) you there!

Congratulations, Dr. Kersten

by Kevin Jon Heller

Mark Kersten, creator of Justice in Conflict, long one of the most important blogs in international criminal justice, successfully defended his thesis yesterday at the LSE. Heartfelt congratulations, my friend!

And, of course, now that Mark has the word “Dr.” in front of his name, we can finally take him seriously.

Thoughts on the Baffling Comoros Declination

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I read – and re-read – the OTP’s decision regarding the attack on the Mavi Marmara, one thought kept going through my mind: what was the OTP thinking? Why would it produce a 61-page document explaining why, despite finding reason to believe the IDF had committed war crimes during the attack, it was not going to open an investigation? After all, the OTP took barely 10 pages to explain why it was not going to open an investigation into British war crimes in Iraq. And it routinely refuses to open investigations with no explanation at all.

There are, I think, two possible explanations for the length of the decision. The first is that the OTP learned its lesson with its 2006 Iraq decision, which no one found convincing and was widely interpreted as Luis Moreno-Ocampo succumbing to Western pressure. This time, the OTP was going to do better, providing a much more detailed discussion of its decision not to investigate.

The second possible explanation is that the OTP felt the need to say more than usual because this was the first time a state had referred crimes committed by another state to the OTP. Nothing in the Rome Statute requires the OTP to treat state referrals differently than “referrals” by individuals or organisations (the scare quotes are necessary because individuals and organisations don’t refer situations; they ask the OTP to use its proprio motu power to open an investigation into a situation), but the OTP is, of course, ultimately dependent upon states to cooperate with it. Hence greater solicitude toward state referrals is warranted.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I imagine both are at least partially correct. But I still can’t help but think that the OTP made a serious mistake, one that will come back to haunt it in the future, should it ever need to formally address the Israel/Palestine conflict again — which seems likely.

To be clear, I don’t think refusing to investigate the attack on the Mavi Marmara was a mistake. I agree with the OTP that the potential crimes committed during the attack, however troubling, are not grave enough to warrant a formal investigation. My problem is with the OTP’s explanation of why those crimes are not adequately grave – that attacks on peacekeepers (in Darfur) are more serious than an attack on civilians engaged trying to break a blockade that has been widely condemned as illegal because of its devastating consequences for the inhabitants of Gaza. I fully agree with Michael Kearney’s recent guest-post on the Comoros decision, in which he questions the OTP’s characterisation of the flotilla as not really being humanitarian. I’d simply add that I find problematic its insistence that a genuinely humanitarian mission would have worked with Israel to distribute goods in Gaza instead of trying to break the blockade. Doing so would have meant, of course, giving final say over the goods to a state whose officials have admitted they want to keep Palestinians at near-subsistence levels. Complying with the blockade would simply have made the flotilla complicit in Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population.

The OTP’s gravity analysis is also analytically confused…

This War of Mine — A New (and Better) Type of Videogame

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nearly nine years ago, I blogged about the ICRC’s efforts to prevent the use — or, more accurately, the misuse — of the Red Cross symbol in videogames. I imagine it will have less of a problem with the new game This War of Mine, which challenges the player to survive as long as possible as a civilian in a war-torn fictional city. Here is the powerful trailer for the game, which mixes survivor testimony with haunting in-game graphics:

And here is a snippet of a glowing (if that’s the right adjective) review of the game by Matt Peckham in Wired:

I’ve seen some refer to This War of Mine as an antiwar video game. That’s too reductive—like calling pictures of civilian casualties in conflict zones “pacifist propaganda.”

The scenarios This War of Mine engages are less antiwar than they are actual war stories, and that, I think, is the point: This is what unflinching war looks like from the standpoint of those powerless to stop it, the ones caught in the teeth of the machine without catchy operational monikers to rally behind or celebrated by politicians to usher them home as heroes. The ones whose war this isn’t.

It’s what Cormac McCarthy was getting at in The Road: We’re a faint signal cutting through the static of existence, and war, with its reduction of civilian lives to collateral damage, scrambles even that.

The version of war we’re often sold involves abstract military numbers, splashy interactive news maps and easy slogans on bumper stickers. In real war, whatever the reasons and however noble the rhetoric, it comes down to individuals like the ones in This War of Mine: People like you or me trapped in appalling scenarios, their social constructs crumbling, needing basic shelter, food, a bed to sleep in, pills or antibiotics, and perhaps most of all, a reason in all the madness not to check out for good.

Videogames are now a $15 billion industry. Here’s hoping at least some of that money goes to the innovative developers of This War of Mine for showing us the educative and transformative potential that well-designed videogames possess.

November 19: UNWCC Event at SOAS

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call our London-area readers attention to a very interesting event I’ll be chairing on November 19. The event is entitled “Reinforcing International Criminal Justice: Building on the Work of the 1943-48 UN War Crimes Commission”; here is the description:

As part of Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy’s Research Programme on UN War Crimes Commission which was published in the Criminal Law Forum, CISD will be holding a Panel Discussion on recently disclosed archives from the United Nations War Crimes Commission (1943-48), uncovering a critical gap in the historical narrative of World War II and the development of international criminal law, upon which the international community can draw in view of strengthening the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court and sharpening international responses to contemporary war crimes and crimes against humanity.

And here are the participants:

Overview: Shanti Sattler (by skype)

Shanti Sattler is the assistant director of the War Crimes Project at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

Complementary Justice: Dr Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis is Executive Director of the International Bar Association (IBA) and leads the foremost international organisation of bar associations, law firms and individual lawyers in the world.

Torture: Dr Lutz Oette

Dr Lutz Oette is Counsel at REDRESS and a lecturer in law at the School of Law, SOAS, University of London.

Prosecution of Sexual Crimes and of Low Level Officials: Dr Dan Plesch

Dr Dan Plesch is the Director of the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

Additional information about the event, which is open to the public and does not require registration, is available here. Readers with a particular interest in the UNWCC’s underappreciated work should also check out CISD’s amazing website here.