Nicholas Koumjian: “International justice prevents atrocities”

Nicholas Koumjian: “International justice prevents atrocities”

Nicholas Koumjian is an experienced human rights and international criminal law specialist. At present he is the international co-prosecutor at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Prior to his current appointment he was the senior appeals counsel for the prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

He represented Abdallah Banda and Saleh Jerbo before the International Criminal Court in a case involving alleged crimes committed in Darfur. He was also the principal trial attorney for the trial of Charles Taylor, headed the UN-funded Serious Crimes Unit in East Timor and was a trial attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Before entering the international legal arena, he worked as a prosecutor in Los Angeles for 20 years. We spoke to Nicholas about ways to hold governments accountable for prosecuting human rights violations, the development of the international criminal justice system, the importance of recognizing modern-day Genocide and the need for greater humanity in the world.

A.Y.: What role should governments play in preventing systematic human rights violations? 

N.K.: Responsibility primarily lies with the government on whose territory these violations are being committed. They have an obligation to protect their own populations, provide victims with security and address their humanitarian needs. International law requires them to punish the perpetrators, even when they are members of the local security forces. For example, this is something the government of Sudan failed to do. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported on a wave of sexual assaults on women and girls committed by Sudanese army soldiers in Tabit, Northern Darfur, in October of 2014. Nothing has been done to bring these criminals to justice. In fact, the state prosecutor justified inaction by claiming that no such crimes took place.  

When the local government fails to fulfill its commitments, other states with means to influence the situation, the so-called “the international community,” have both the right and the responsibility to stop the violence, and their efforts can make a difference. 

Those who commit such abuses are often motivated by money. They want to control the resources, like diamonds, oil, land or other assets. Thus financial measures, sanctions and regulations can have a beneficial effect. Restricting these people’s ability to use the international banking system to move money internationally and/or banning the export of resources like diamonds or timber from places where proceeds fuel conflicts can reduce the motivation behind them (though it is much easier to enforce a ban on timber than to prevent the smuggling of portable commodities like diamonds). Making it clear that those who commit crimes of war or crimes against humanity will eventually face justice can also deter criminals. 


A policeman guards the Special Court for Sierra Leone during a live broadcast of the verdict by a United Nations-backed court in the Hague convicting former Liberian president Charles Taylor of war crimes in the country's capital Freetown on April 26, 2012. The court convicted Taylor of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity — the first time a head of state has been found guilty by an international tribunal since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg. Taylor, 64, had been charged with 11 counts of murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers and sexual slavery during intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, during which more than 50,000 people were killed. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Such situations are incredibly complex and the solutions are never easy. Passing resolutions requires a multi-dimensional approach and the willingness of those involved to compromise. When the situation poses great and imminent danger to human lives, international military intervention may be justified and necessary. Many observers believe that the United Nations made a mistake in reducing its forces in Rwanda when the Genocide began: hundreds of thousands of lives could have possibly been saved had the forces been augmented slightly and given a broader mandate to stop the violence. Military intervention is surely not the answer to all conflicts, but unfortunately it is not one we can disregard completely given the growing threat from groups devoted to committing mass atrocities.    

A.Y.: You have worked at many international criminal courts, including the ICC, the Yugoslav Tribunal, East Timor, the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Special Court for Sierra Leone and now the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Where is the international criminal justice system headed?

N.K.: Many have been disillusioned with international criminal justice; they see it as too slow and too expensive. These are valid criticisms and there are people working to alleviate them, but I think it is very important to keep in mind that this field is still nascent. The Nuremberg Tribunal and subsequent prosecution of Axis war criminals were groundbreaking. In the words of the chief prosecutor’s opening statement, the fact that the victorious allies decided to “stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.” 

Nothing happened for almost 50 years after Nuremberg until the Security Council established the Yugoslav Tribunal in 1993. That was followed by the establishment of the Rwanda tribunal, the Special Panels in East Timor, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Extraordinary Chambers in Cambodia, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and, of course, the International Criminal Court. A special tribunal established by the African Union just completed a trial in Senegal of the former Chadian Dictator Hassan Habre. The new focus on war crimes and crimes against humanity has led to a growing number of domestic prosecutions and more states training their forces. 


Boxes with audiovisual recordings are stored at shelves of the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) for the former Yugoslavia in Hague, in this September 20, 2011 photo. The road for former Yugoslavia's war criminals ends here, at "The Hague Hilton". In this section of the international criminal court's Scheveningen detention unit, 40 or so accused from the former Yugoslavia live in remarkable harmony and comfort awaiting trial or sentencing. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Has this new focus put an end to atrocities? Certainly not, given the situations in Syria and Iraq. But prosecuting rapes and murders in Los Angeles, Shanghai or Rome has not stopped all the rapes and murders in those places, and we don’t expect it to. 

What we do expect are lower numbers of such crimes being committed due to the inevitability of punishment. 

It is very difficult to prove why something did not occur. I am convinced that international justice has prevented atrocities, and the more effectively we prosecute such crimes, the more people will be deterred in the future. One change is notable: today, when there is talk of atrocities being committed in Syria, Gaza or Ukraine we immediately hear calls for investigations and holding those responsible accountable. Twenty-five years ago this would not have even been part of the conversation.      

A.Y.: The European Parliament recently passed a resolution recognizing the Islamic State militant group’s systematic killing and persecution of Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities as Genocide. What does that mean from a legal standpoint? 

N.K.: The legal definition states that certain acts, such as killing members of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group or transferring children from the group, when carried out with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the group as such, constitutes Genocide. A religious group is obviously not defined by its members’ DNA, but rather by their convictions and way of life. Armenians are generally defined as a national or ethnic group, but in this regard it is interesting to consider the case of people some have labeled “hidden Armenians” – descendants of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire who were forced to give up their Christian religion. Today they struggle for recognition as Armenians and sometimes with their self-identification. 

If someone institutes a policy of killing all those who refuse to give up a particular religious belief, that, in my view, is clearly Genocide. I am currently in the middle of a trial that involves exactly that kind of allegation. The Khmer Rouge communists banned all religious practice in Cambodia, particularly targeting the Cham Muslim minority because they resisted these policies. Our evidence shows that religious leaders and those who resisted the policy were killed, often along with their entire families. So whatever the religious convictions of the group, whether Christian, Yazidi or Muslim, when members of the group are given the choice to convert or die, that is a clear case of Genocide. 

In international criminal law there is no hierarchy of crimes. 

In my current case, far more Cambodians were killed because they were deemed politically suspect by the regime than because of their religious beliefs, but legally, this is labeled as murder and extermination rather than Genocide. However, Genocide is a word with a lot of political implications. The Genocide Convention, to which most of the world’s governments are committed, requires the signatory states to take steps to prevent and punish Genocide. The existence or threat of Genocide is generally seen as justification for international intervention and the use of force to prevent the crime. So, in my view, the European Parliament’s recognition that the Islamic State’s brutal campaign against those of other religious beliefs constitutes Genocide is very important indeed.    

A.Y.: You are now the international co-prosecutor at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. What can we learn from the horrendous suffering of the people of Cambodia during the 1975-1979 regime and how do we prevent similar crimes against humanity in the future?

N.K.: In Cambodia a small group of people seized power and tried to implement their vision of a radical Maoist revolution. In the four years they ruled the country, up to a quarter of the population died due to starvation, being overworked, unsanitary conditions, lack of basic medical care and executions. These leaders were paranoid about both external and internal “enemies.” The more they killed and abused the population, the greater their need was to suppress all dissent, the more they felt the need to kill to preserve their own hold on power. 


People pay their respects to relatives who died during the Khmer Rouge regime at a memorial for the victims in Kampot province, April 15, 2015. Millions of Cambodians living with the scars of Pol Pot's 1975-1979 genocidal wave of terror face the possibility that the U.N.-backed tribunal will be unable to bring to justice those most responsible for the deaths of about 1.8 million people. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

One friend of mine told me that his ten-year-old daughter had to do a presentation on Genocide and asked for my advice on how she should explain Genocide to her classmates. I said that Genocide is when bad leaders convince their people that another group is a threat to them and need to be killed. In simple terms, this is what I have seen. Genocide and other mass atrocities are preceded by efforts to deny the humanity of another group, to instill fear in one’s own people and to view the others as existential threats, thus justifying the crimes. 

So the lesson for me is the constant need to counter this type of propaganda and way of thinking, to recognize that there are good and bad people in every group and that the vast majority of human beings have much more in common than setting us apart – we all want a peaceful and prosperous life for our children and ourselves. 

Even in the current political climate in the West, some politicians are taking advantage of the legitimate concern with the threat of terrorism by Islamic extremists to inspire paranoia and discrimination against entire groups of people. Such reactions only aid these radical groups’ recruiting efforts and increase the chances of conflict.   

A.Y.: The first laureate of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity will be announced on April 24. How do you feel about the need to awaken humanity in today’s world, and who has inspired you in this field? 

N.K.: I’ve been inspired by people like Alusine Conteh. When rebels in Freetown forced him to put his hand on a log and then cut it off, his four-year-old son began to cry. The rebel leader told the mother to bring the child to him, but Alusine said “No, take my other hand.” The rebels then cut off his remaining hand and left his wife and son alone. I’ll also never forget all the witnesses I met in the case I worked on concerning Prijedor, a town a where some of the worst killings in the Bosnian war occurred. Many of them spoke of Dr. Esad Sadikovic, a Muslim who was married to a Serb Christian and had started a peace group before the conflict broke out. After the conflict began in Prijedor, he was detained in the infamous Omarska camp. Because of his charisma, he had special status in the camp and used it to carry messages between the separate rooms where prisoners were kept. One witness described him stitching a head wound with the beaten boy’s own hair. He went room to room helping people, telling jokes, giving people courage in the face of the beatings and killings. He even treated the guards at the camp when they were sick or injured. Unfortunately, the night international journalists discovered the camp Dr. Sadikovic was put on a bus and never seen alive again. His body has been exhumed from a mass grave.

I consider the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity to be a very important and ingenious initiative. Millions of people can be inspired by stories of bravery and humanity of just a few. While the rest of us may not match their courage and sacrifice, it can inspire us all to do more for others.