The following article was written to mark International Justice Day (17 July 2021) and is based on ongoing research I am conducting into the linkages between mass atrocities and transnational organized crime (see here for some preliminary insights). A version of the piece was originally published at Al Jazeera.
Mass atrocities don’t come cheap.
A common misconception is that everything must fail in order for international crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide – to be perpetrated against civilian populations. On the contrary, many things need to align for governments, terrorists, or rebel groups to commit atrocities. They need persuasive politics, organised institutions prepared to follow orders, and buy-in from key constituencies. And they need money – lots of it.
After another year in which the demand for accountability for international crimes far outweighed the supply of justice, this July 17 – International Justice Day – is a useful time to highlight the importance of tackling the funding of atrocity perpetrators. One way to do so is to connect the prosecution of mass atrocities with the lucrative, transnational crimes that fuel them.
It is hard, if not impossible, to think of a conflict since the end of World War II where mass atrocities were perpetrated but in which transnational organised crimes played no role. The commission of transnational crimes, such as human and drug trafficking, money laundering, the illicit trade of oil, ivory and antiquities, and so on, has contributed mightily to filling the coffers of war criminals, terrorists, and genocidaires.
Consider some examples. The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group which operates in swaths of Central Africa, has committed a litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity since its war with the government of Uganda erupted in the mid-1980s. In recent years, the LRA has been able to survive and continue its abduction of children to fight in its ranks because of its illegal trafficking of ivory through Sudan.
In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been accused of every international crime on the books, including the attempted genocide of the Yazidi population. ISIL’s economy depended on transnational organised crimes, including the illicit sale of oil through Turkey and on to international markets. While its destruction of culturally protected sites received significant media attention, ISIL also preserved some antiquities in order to sell them, illegally, on black markets. Such transnational crimes permitted ISIL to survive – and terrorise civilians – for as long as it did.
On rare occasions, the link between illicit and lucrative crimes and mass atrocities has received attention from courts. In 2012, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in jail for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone. Central to his conviction was Taylor’s involvement in the trade of “conflict diamonds” in order to fund the rebel groups that terrorised Sierra Leonean civilians.Continue reading