Making the Case for Protecting Cultural Heritage under the Alien Tort Statute

On July 29, 1990, Moses Thomas, then-commander of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit of the Armed Forces of Liberia, ordered his troops to massacre nearly 600 unarmed men, women, and children taking refuge in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church from the country’s civil war. For nearly three decades, Thomas and his forces evaded accountability despite the massacre being one of the most horrific attacks on civilians in the country’s history.

Twenty-eight years later, on February 12, 2018, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed a case in U.S. federal court on behalf of four Liberian citizens who survived the church massacre by hiding under church pews and dead bodies while their loved ones were murdered around them.

In the suit, the survivors alleged several claims for war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which confers jurisdiction to U.S. federal courts over claims of international law violations brought by non-nationals. In one claim, the plaintiffs allege that Moses Thomas had committed a war crime by intentionally directing attacks against a building dedicated to religion. CJA’s case against Thomas marks the first time such a claim has been brought under the ATS.

The intentional attacking or destruction of religious property—a form of cultural heritage—is as much a human rights violation as the physical destruction of a people. Nonetheless, this form of violence is on the rise throughout the world, occurring both in times of armed conflict and peace, systematically and sporadically.

In the last decade alone, Sufi religious and historic sites have been destroyed and graves desecrated in Libya; cultural and religious sites, artifacts, and manuscripts have been destroyed during the occupation of northern Mali; temples, monasteries, shrines, and millenniums-old sites, such as Palmyra, have been destroyed in the Syrian Arab Republic; Coptic churches and monasteries in Egypt, Jewish sites in Tunisia, and hundreds of shrines belonging to the Sufi sect of Islam across Northern Africa have all been targeted and destroyed. This list of incidents—incidents that have had a profound effect on cultural and religious communities globally—is in no way exhaustive.

Such deliberate destruction of cultural heritage violates numerous human rights, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and the freedom to take part in cultural life. Intentionally attacking cultural and religious property also is in violation of international humanitarian law—though the targeted nature of recent attacks shows, in many instances, that what once were protected structures during armed conflict have now become strategic military targets. Such acts of destruction additionally violate many States’ treaty obligations under several binding international legal documents.

Despite the extensive legal framework aimed at protecting such cultural and religious property, accountability for their destruction is slow or wholly unpursued. CJA’s case may thus lay the groundwork for one viable avenue to change this tide. The question, however, is whether the claim alleged by CJA for the destruction of religious property meets the legal thresholds for cognizability under the ATS established by the U.S. Supreme Court. Continue reading

Corporate accountability: Dutch court convicts former “Timber baron” of war crimes in Liberia

On 21 April 2017, the Dutch Court of Appeal in ‘s-Hertogenbosch issued a decision holding Mr Guus Kouwenhoven, a Dutch national, responsible as an accessory to war crimes committed in Liberia and parts of Guinea between August 2000 and December 2002. The decision is one of few to address corporate accountability for war crimes. As the president of the Oriental Timber Company (OTC) and director of the Royal Timber Company (RTC), Mr Kouwenhoven supplied weapons, and material, personnel and other resources to former Liberian President Charles Taylor and his armed forces, which were used to fuel their fight against a rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). The court held Mr Kouwenhoven liable not only for directly violating a UN arms embargo in place at the time, but equally as an aider and abettor to war crimes that were committed using the resources he provided, including rape, pillage, murder, and inhumane treatment. Here are a few highlights.

The case against Guus Kouwenhoven

The crimes for which Mr Kouwenhoven stood trial were alleged to have been committed during the second Liberian Civil War between 2000 and 2002, when Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was fighting a brutal war against LURD. The specific charges related to crimes committed in Voinjama and Kolahun in Lofa County in Liberia, as well as in Guéckédou, across the border in Guinea. Although the charges against Mr Kouwenhoven related to his having been “complicit in repeated violations of the laws and customs of war, to wit murder or rape”, the allegations covered a range of different crimes. The court noted that unnamed (co-)perpetrators, members of Charles Taylor’s armed forces, indiscriminately fired at civilians and military targets, burned houses with civilians trapped inside, cut off people’s heads, smashed babies against walls to kill them, forced civilians to undress before shooting them, and raped women and children.

As director and president of two of the largest timber companies in Liberia, Mr Kouwenhoven’s business interests were closely tied to former President Charles Taylor’s political, financial, and personal interests. Mr Kouwenhoven maintained frequent contact with Charles Taylor, who had financial interests in his two companies and frequently received payments and other resources. In exchange, Mr Kouwenhoven gained access to large swathes of territory for the exploitation of timber and was given de facto control over the Buchanan port.

The court noted that Mr Kouwenhoven used his companies to import, store, and distribute weapons in Liberia, in clear violation of the UN arms embargo. He provided trucks for the transportation of armed forces, weapons and ammunition, and facilitated the import of weapons and ammunition. He also actively encouraged his employees to support Charles Taylor, such as by unloading weapons from his ships in Buchanan and transporting them to various places in Liberia or participating actively in the fighting, and threatened those who refused with dismissal. He also allowed the armed forces access to an RTC camp, effectively used as a meeting place and a mechanism for storage and resupply of weapons to the frontline.

Corporate accountability for international crimes

Importantly, Mr Kouwenhoven is not convicted of directly perpetrating international crimes himself. Rather, the court held that he made an “active and conscious” contribution to the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law, by the provision of material, personnel, and other resources through his businesses in Liberia. Although he had been charged in the alternative as (co-)perpetrator and as an accessory to the crime, he was ultimately convicted as an aider or abettor.

Continue reading

Sex in Peace Operations

sex in peace opsShould all sex between international personnel and local people in peace operations be prohibited? Why are peacekeepers rarely prosecuted for crimes such as rape? Should humanitarian workers be allowed to pay for sex? Should local laws or international standards determine the age of consent to sex between local people and international personnel in peace operations? My book, Sex in Peace Operations, examines the regulation of sex between international personnel and local people in United Nations peace operations through case studies of Bosnia, West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Over the past two decades there has been a series of scandals implicating UN peacekeepers, humanitarian workers and private military contractors in sexual exploitation and abuse of local people. Perhaps the best known of these are the cases of Cambodia and Somalia in the early 1990s, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2002 and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2004.  More recently the film The Whistleblower has publicised trafficking in women by private military contractors employed by DynCorp and seconded to the UN as international police monitors and trainers in post-war Bosnia.  Although less widely reported, there are also non-exploitative sexual relations between peacekeepers and local people.

The response to sex in peace operations has shifted over the last twenty years from an attitude that ‘boys will be boys’ to a ‘zero tolerance’ policy.  The zero tolerance policy, which appears to have been developed as a substitute for an effective legal framework, is itself highly problematic.  My book argues that the regulatory focus should be on preventing, and ending impunity for, sexual crimes committed by international personnel against local people, rather than trying to prevent nearly all sex between international personnel and local people, as the zero tolerance policy claims to do.  It suggests more responsive approaches to sex in peace operations that aim to promote the sexual autonomy of local people, particularly women and girls.