The Journalist as a Witness to War Crimes

By Hume, Ellen | Nieman Reports, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Journalist as a Witness to War Crimes


Hume, Ellen, Nieman Reports


A New Book Helps Reporters Define What They See

Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know Edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff W.W. Norton & Company. 399 Pages. $35 hc. $19.95 pb.

In this century's seemingly endless cycle of crimes against humanity, journalists sometimes can make a real difference. "Crimes of War," written by seasoned combat reporters and other experts, advises journalists how to advance justice by using international law as a context for coverage.

Editors Roy Gutman, a correspondent for Newsday, and David Rieff, a freelance author, have organized an alphabetical encyclopedia of atrocities, legal definitions and practical advice. The book offers firsthand experiences with organized barbarity: machete massacres in Rwanda, genocide in Cambodia, the Serbian sniper siege of Sarajevo, rape camps, slavery in the Sudan. In telling their war stories, the contributors often describe their own helplessness. The writers have covered many war crimes over the years, "without any particular expectation that the perpetrators would ever be brought to justice," Lawrence Wechsler, a staff writer for The New Yorker, concedes. Part of the problem, as David Rieff explains, is that "humanitarian intervention is at once an immensely powerful and a terribly imprecise idea."

But now the international community appears more responsive, the authors observe, and that is why they have created this guide. International laws are actually being used to punish some war crimes, thanks to the special international tribunals investigating Bosnia and Rwanda. There also is the pending effort to create an international criminal court. "By virtue of their profession, war correspondents may well find themselves among the first outside witnesses on the scene at war crimes. As such, they're going to need to be informed witnesses, and the rest of us are going to have to become a far better informed and engaged public," Wechsler asserts.

This book tells journalists what to look for to determine whether a war crime may have been committed. Was there a machine gun emplacement hidden in the rafters of the targeted hospital? Were armed troops accompanying refugees who were fleeing? Had the defenders of a town raised a white surrender flag before they were shot? Was the radio station broadcasting journalism or propaganda incitements to murder? Was the electrical station used by the military or only by civilians?

Knowing the international laws regarding war crimes might even help to persuade some combatants to desist, one contributor suggests. "I was present as a nonpartisan journalist, but found myself unexpectedly faced with situations where I felt a moral obligation to save lives," writes Jon Lee Anderson, a freelance writer, recounting gruesome civilian executions in Sri Lanka. "I had no primer like this one, where the laws are clearly outlined, to help me formulate my arguments more convincingly. It is difficult to know whether men who feel themselves to be above the law can be persuaded by legal arguments, but it is certainly worth a try."

The book is compelling, but also frustrating at times. Some contributing authors suspend their neutrality to settle old scores, while others barely get started on the topic they've chosen. Benny Morris's chapter on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war is a comparatively lengthy polemic against Israeli atrocities, while Terence Taylor's too-brief article on biological weapons doesn't go far enough to tell journalists what to look for when seeking evidence of biological weapons. The book seems to be an eclectic compendium of what each journalist wanted to write rather than an integrated or complete analysis of what they actually needed to address. But despite these drawbacks, "Crimes of War" makes a valuable contribution.

Most importantly, "Crimes of War" shames the journalist who relies on descriptions of anarchy or "ancient hatreds" to describe what is happening on the ground at the present time. …

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