Mass atrocities do not go well.
A common mistake is that everything must fail so that international crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – are perpetrated against civilian populations. On the contrary, many things have to be aligned for governments, terrorists, or rebel groups to commit atrocities. They need persuasive policies, organized institutions willing to follow orders, and buying from key constituencies. And they need money – a lot.
After another year where the demand for accountability for international crimes far exceeded the supply of justice, this July 17 – International Day of Justice – is a useful time to highlight the importance of tackling the funding of perpetrators of atrocity. One way to do this is to connect the pursuit of mass atrocities with the lucrative transnational crimes that fuel them.
It is difficult, if not possible, to think of a conflict since the end of World War II where mass atrocities have been perpetrated but in which transnational organized crime has not played a role. The commission of transnational crimes, such as human and drug trafficking, money laundering, illicit trade in oil, ivory and antiques, etc., has potentially contributed to filling the coffers of war criminals, terrorists and genocides.
Consider some examples. The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group operating in Central African areas, has committed a litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity since its war with the British government. ‘Uganda erupted in the mid-1980s. In recent years, the LRA has managed to survive and continue its abduction of children to fight in its ranks because of its illegal ivory trafficking in Sudan.
In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been accused of all international crimes on the books, including the attempted genocide of the Yazidi population. ISIL’s economy depended on transnational organized crime, including the illicit sale of oil through Turkey and to international markets. While its destruction of culturally protected sites has received significant media attention, ISIL has also retained some antiquities to sell them, illegally, on black markets. Such transnational crimes have allowed ISIL to survive – and terrorize civilians – to the point.
On rare occasions, the link between illicit and lucrative crimes and mass atrocities has received attention from the courts. In 2012, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was sentenced and sentenced to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone. Central to his conviction was Taylor’s involvement in the “conflict diamonds” trade to fund rebel groups terrorizing Sierra Leone’s civilians.
More recently, the Center for Specialist Chambers and the Special Prosecutor of Kosovo has been established, much hoping that it will shed new light on whether the Kosovo Liberation Army engages in human organ trafficking later. its war and the alleged anti-ethnic police campaign against Serbia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
All these examples illustrate that the same perpetrators who commit mass atrocities are also and simultaneously involved in the commission of transnational organized money-making crimes. Given how complex and difficult it is to realize a significant responsibility for mass atrocities, as well as the freezing pace of international criminal justice, it is time to consider placing greater emphasis on investigating perpetrators of international crimes for their participation in illicit trade networks.
More can and should be done to destabilize the funding of mass atrocity perpetrators. This would require a joint effort by state institutions and international organizations, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), to link the investigation of transnational organized crime and international crime. There is some progress on this front, with countries such as Uganda establishing special divisions capable of investigating both criminal groups. Others have promised to do the same. Former ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has raised the specter of investigating human trafficking in Libya as a possible crime against humanity, although there is no evidence of concrete actions on the matter. so far.
A promising way would be to ensure that investigators examining mass atrocities are better equipped to gather evidence of transnational organized crime. When they are not able to use this evidence to build their homes, they have to share it with states and institutions that are capable of doing so and that can disrupt illegal networks. In addition, States should explore the possibility of establishing a permanent international tribunal with the specific mandate to deal with transnational organized crimes, perhaps in conjunction with efforts to create an international anti-corruption tribunal.
Every year, transnational organized crime generates hundreds of billions of dollars. But it doesn’t just cost in dollars and cents. It costs human life. Dealing with such illicit crimes could thus help protect civilians from violence and atrocities. He did it before.
Few gangsters were as well-known in the early 20th century as Al Capone. Widely believed to have been responsible for numerous murders and violent crimes, Capone was eventually convicted of tax evasion. He would charge “Scarface” with a crime that could more easily be tried to mean he was out of the streets and was no longer a direct danger to society. In other words, putting Capone behind the nets for tax evasion has deterred his ability to commit violent crimes in the future.
This is also the promise to link the investigation and prosecution of mass atrocities with transnational organized crime. The disruption of illicit trade networks and the persecution of perpetrators of transnational crimes would neutralize the ability of genocidal regimes, terrorist organizations and rebel groups to fund their violence, thus deterring atrocities.
Follow the money and maybe the perpetrators of atrocities around the world will meet their match.
The views in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.