March 29, 2020

Time to Dust Off the War Crimes Act?

  • With Sarah Knuckey

Former members of the U.S. military are present in armed conflicts across the globe. Working for private military contractors, they are typically tasked with training and advising foreign armies. But a Buzzfeed article published this week profiles a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who has reportedly taken on a commanding role within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) military. American citizen Stephen Toumajan, as Commander of the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command, is responsible for “combat readiness and execution” of all UAE aviation missions. And as Just Security readers well know, the UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been accused of serious international law violations (including war crimes) for indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes in Yemen, arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, the imposition of a blockade, and closure of Sana’a International Airport.

Yemeni human rights organizations, international groups, and the United Nations have published numerous reports documenting human rights and humanitarian law violations by the Saudi-led coalition. Reports document repeated airstrikes that have resulted in significant civilian casualties, and have concluded that many strikes likely violated international humanitarian law and that some may constitute war crimes (see hereherehereherehereherehere, and here). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the airstrikes, and stated that “we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes.” The UN Secretary General has reported on grave violations against children by the coalition. The UN Panel of Experts, mandated by the Security Council, concluded that here have been “widespread violations” of international law in Yemen, and that the coalition’s closure of Sana’a International Airport “to those genuinely seeking immediate medical treatment abroad” violates Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.  The Panel also found that UAE forces have been responsible for torture, denial of timely medical treatment, and enforced disappearances.

It is no secret that the UAE has been relying on foreign mercenaries in its Yemen operations. The UAE has paid Colombian and Sudanese nationals to serve as part of their ground forces. Lured by Emirati funds, Toumajan is not the first highly-paid ex-military official from a Western nation to take on a leadership role. With foreigners playing an increasingly significant part in the Yemeni war, what criminal prosecution mechanisms are available in the face of serious war crimes allegations? Continue reading here.


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