Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Charles Finstrom
Breaking the Rules: War Crimes and Violations of Jus in Bello in Sri Lanka

A recent BBC article states that the United Nations is calling for an international investigation into alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan regime in its campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).  However, rather than merely an unsupported claim, the Sri Lankan army’s use of torture, sexual violence, and indiscriminate bombing constitute blatant war crimes based off their refusal to make basic protections for the lives of the civilians caught in the conflict.
In his book, Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer (1977) presents a thorough analysis of international law and legitimate conflict during war.  Two points within his analysis are crucial for examining the case of Sri Lanka.  The first is the argument that international society has an obligation to monitor and punish war crimes.  Indeed, “[international] law must provide some recourse when our deepest moral values are savagely attacked” (Walzer, 1977: 288).  Moreover, leaders are “bound by the [international] legal code and can rightly be charged and punished for criminal acts” (Walzer, 1977: 291).  The UN is therefore well within its rights to investigate and condemn Sri Lanka for these abuses.
File:Elephant Pass rusting tank.jpg
Aftermath of the Conflict; A Rusting Tank (Wikimedia Commons)
Second, Sri Lanka’s actions clearly violate jus in bello regarding the double effect requirement to provide adequate consideration for the lives of civilians.  The widespread sexual violence, torture, and indiscriminate bombing perpetrated by Sri Lankan troops against civilians, for example, present a clear case of war crimes.  International law expressly forbids the first two because such actions violate specific rights of the people to be free from targeting by military forces (Walzer, 1977: 187-188).  Walzer’s (1977) conception of jus in bello, for example, expressly forbids the targeting of civilians for torture, death, or deliberate violence.  The use of indiscriminate bombing also violates international laws because while civilian casualties are permissible under the concept of double effect, Sri Lankan soldiers failed to make a basic effort to limit the casualties of the civilians their operations endangered.  Indeed, even if guerrilla or terrorist forces hide and operate amongst the people, civilians still have a “right to life” which “must be respected … in the course of attacks against the irregular forces” (Walzer, 1977: 193).  These cases of violence thus present a poignant example of contemporary war crimes by the Sri Lankan regime, a set of violations the international community is therefore well in their rights to investigate and prosecute.

Walzer, Michael.  Just and Unjust War: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations.  New York: Basic Books (1977).  Print.
“UN Human Rights Council Urges Sri Lanka War Crimes Court.”  BBC.  16 Sept 2015.  Web.  28 Sept 2015.
“United Nations Calls for Sri Lanka War Crimes Court.”  BBC.  16 Sept 2015.  Web.  28 Sept 2015.

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