‘Put a Spotlight On War Crimes. Then Let the Public Decide’

Read Time:10 Minute, 18 Second
Roy Gutman
Roy Gutman speaks about his reporting experiences on the wars in Bosnia and Syria. (SARAH RASHID)


Roy Gutman won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s. As the first reporter to discover concentration camps in Bosnia, he revealed war atrocities and human rights violations. Author of two books, and co-editor of a third, he was formerly a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and now is Middle East Bureau Chief with McClatchy Newspapers, based in Istanbul. Mr. Gutman was visiting SAIS recently as a guest speaker in Professor Michael Getler’s class on the press and foreign policy, as he has been doing for the past seven years. Mr. Gutman sat down with The SAIS Observer to discuss his reporting experiences, war crimes, the International Criminal Court and Syria.

In the early 1990s, you were in Bosnia-Herzegovina. What were you doing there?

I was a reporter for Newsday, assigned to Europe just before the end of the Cold War. I was based in Germany, and was very interested in east-west relations and life in the communist world. I actually had an inkling from visits to Moscow think tanks in 1988 and 1989 that the Cold War was going to end, and that communism was going to end. So I was quite eager to take up the assignment. I had lived and worked in Germany before, and I had been a reporter in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

I was covering all the events of 1989, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the revolutions in several countries such as Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and then-Czechoslovakia. I had knowledge and hands-on experience in the old Yugoslavia, but I did not go there for a couple of years, because it was a very busy time for journalists, until it was on the eve of war. And then I went back.

You won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for your coverage of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. What did you discover there?

I thought I knew the old Yugoslavia from having lived there in the mid 1970s, but when I went back in 1991, I discovered it was a different country. So much had changed. A system that relied on the use of force to some degree but also on a lot of consent and suppression of nationalism through all sorts of means, many of them administrative, had been transformed.

Suddenly, there was no other side after the Cold War period. There was no East to be the counterbalance by the West. And the West lost interest, so local actors like Slobodan Milosevic decided they had to find some ticket to power to stay in power, and it was not going to be the Communist Party, which was crumbling. Like any party after forty years in power, it was in need of a reboot. And so they went to nationalism. You saw Serbian rabble-rousers going out and denouncing other national groups, which threatened the social and political order. First they went after the Kosovo Albanians, then it was the Croats and eventually it was the Muslims in Bosnia. The landscape had changed.

After the Serb-led Yugoslav Army conquered a “corridor” between Serbia and the predominantly Serb town of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia, I was the first reporter to travel there – by bus from Belgrade. There I heard that Bosnian Serbs who had seized power in many towns with the help of the Yugoslav Army had set up concentration camps, where they brought thousands of Muslim men and were torturing and killing them daily. One was Omarska, a former iron ore mine north of Banja Luka. I asked to go there, but the military authorities told me they could not guarantee my safety. So a short time later, I went to Zagreb, Croatia, where tens of thousands of Bosnians had fled, and with the help of the Red Crescent organization, I found survivors of two camps – Omarska and Brcko Luka. That led to a story in Newsday with the headline: ‘Bosnia’s Camps of Death’.

This evolution of nationalism led up to some acts that became war crimes. What is a war crime, and what are the origins of its definition?

It is a term that is sometimes thrown around pretty lightly, but it has a very precise meaning. Humanitarian law, or international humanitarian law more specifically, is actually written law. The first Geneva Convention in 1864 and the Lieber Code during the American Civil War were, in the modern time, the first codification of these laws.

The best-known codification is the Geneva Conventions of 1949. But they have been supplemented with additional protocols that have been approved by most parties, but not by everybody. The most recent codification is in the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is a fairly new institution. In drafting the Rome Statute, all the experts went through humanitarian law, and they codified what is a war crime? What is a crime against humanity? What is genocide? It is accessible in one location, but now that there are other war crimes tribunals, there are other precedents too.

One of the interesting things about war crimes, unfortunately, is that as soon as something is proscribed, and subjected to some kind of international punishment, somebody comes up with a new one. They invent new war crimes all the time. I remember in the Kosovo War, Slobodan Milosevic seemed to be determined to force the Kosovo Albanians to flee their ancestral home in a way that amounted to a massive expulsion. That particular method was not in the code at that point. And today, the barrel bombing of Aleppo is another particular wrinkle that is also not there. So the laws of war have evolved as a result of the ingenuity and the deviousness of leaders who have decided to commit crimes against their own population or against somebody else’s.

Gutman talks with the Observer editorial staff, Jameel Khan and Selim Koru. (SARAH RASHID)
Gutman talks with the Observer editorial staff, Jameel Khan and Selim Koru. (SARAH RASHID)

What are the most important hurdles facing the enforcement of war crimes today?

When you come down to it, there is no enforcement. The only enforcement that is really effective is if somebody conquers another country and sets up a tribunal such as Nuremberg to try the people who committed crimes. Or if somebody sees the light, which is pretty rare, and invites in an international tribunal like in Sierra Leone or in Kampuchea. On the whole, the ICC only has jurisdiction in countries party to the Statute.

The obvious thing in the war in Syria now is that the international commissions set up by the UN have determined that the regime has carried out crimes against humanity in a very consistent and widespread way, but nobody has referred Assad, or even asked the ICC to deal with the war in Syria. Why? Syria is not a party to the ICC. And if it were referred by the Security Council, which is one way you can get around that lack of statutory legitimacy, Russia would block it. Furthermore, the US has not even argued that Assad should be referred to the tribunal. So what does this mean? It is sort of like a green light for crimes against humanity.

Why do you think the world is not acting in Syria?

Well I think Assad learned from the Balkan Wars that one of his major objectives in a tactical sense is to keep the press out. While a lot of information is coming from Syria in the form of YouTubes and social media postings from Syrian citizen-journalists, very little reporting is being done by either Western journalists or Western-trained journalists. So there is an absence of news reporting. And for the past six months, the group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has threatened to arrest any reporter going into their area. That has stopped practically all reporting from inside the country.

There has also been a lack of interest by the general public. It seems there is be nobody in Congress who is championing the plight of the Syrian people. And the Obama administration on the whole is silent about the course of the war. So there is almost no way to tell the story, or to get the story out, or to actually put the spotlight on it. And the problem with social media as a source of information is that it is not done in a journalistic way. In general, stories are not researched, double-checked, and vetted or edited. They come out as raw material. And news organizations, especially with their more limited means now, do not have the personnel or even the drive to go through an immense quantity of social media. Without journalism, there’s no way to arouse governments in the major western countries.

My workaround would be to set up a news agency which would utilize citizen journalists inside Syria and experienced editors based out of the country; it would produce depth coverage, of the war, surveys of patterns of attacks on civilians, stories about the humanitarian crisis and other investigative journalism.

Could you tell us a little about the project you founded, “Crimes of War Education Project” (CWEP)?

Well I am embarrassed to admit that it has been suspended for lack of funds. And it is really terrible at a moment like this. The object was to inform the general public, not just reporters but anybody interested, in how the rules of war apply to a current situation. And right now in Syria if there is ever a case where it should be done, it is now.

In the period after 9/11, there was a lot less interest in the laws of war and a lot more interest in terrorism. So that sort of trumped war coverage, and now there is not much interest in Syria at all. And yet this is the moment we should be explaining to the public what is permitted in war, what is forbidden in war, and what is criminal in war. So I would like to revive it.

I think there is something major at stake.  I think there are standards in international law. There are precedents. There are institutions. Everybody gives lip service to it. These laws are universally subscribed to. This is not just what they called it in Iraq, the “Coalition of the Willing.” No, the nations of the world are all party to these Conventions. Everybody is. And the Geneva Conventions say at the beginning of every Convention that it is the obligation of the parties to the Convention to uphold the law and see to it that they are upheld. That is where the function of the CWEP Project is. It is to put the spotlight on those who are not upholding the law and to define these things in legal terms.

As a journalist, what is it that you want people to do with the information you provide?

The right thing – and I don’t even know what the right thing is. News is what somebody once defined as follows: ‘something that somebody, somewhere, somehow, wants to suppress.’ What you focus on in journalism really is things that should not be. It can be crime of a petty sort or a grand sort. It can be corruption, scandal, or things that just should not be. And what you try to do as a journalist is get your facts right. And then let the public decide what to do about it.

Sometimes governments need to intervene militarily. Sometimes just putting a spotlight on a thing can be like an intervention because it will stop things as I had the experience in Bosnia. After I wrote my story about Omarska, the Bosnian Serb authorities shut it down, and many other camps as well. Sometimes you need tribunals. You need something because the whole of the international system rests on an acceptance of international humanitarian law. And letting it slide or sort of erode as is now happening is giving up the great treasures of our civilization.

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