Sadat Speaks on Crimes Against Humanity

Staff, students, and members of the learned more about  the surprising – and surprisingly serious – problem of Crimes Against Humanity in a lecture by Professor Leila Nadya Sadat on Monday, September 15, 2014.

Sadat, who has spent the better part of two decades working against such horrific crimes, defined them as “widespread or systematic violations of human rights committed against populations during times of conflict or peace around the world.”  She discussed the history of using law and legal institutions to demand accountability. Such crimes, according to Sadat, include rape, torture, detention, enslavement, trafficking, apartheid, and disappearances – all of which have happened throughout the world, beginning with crimes tried during the famous Nuremberg Trials between 1945 and 1949.

Sadat attributes her commitment to justice and international accountability to the victims and the need to use lawful tools to seek justice.

“You see this level of victimization and it just breaks your heart. As a lawyer, you are in a position – you have tools. Now, if you know that somebody committed a crime in your city, or in your village somewhere and you don’t have a law, you can’t just go scoop them up off the street and put them in a jail if there’s not a law that they’ve actually broken. And so, the tools of the law – building institutions, building frameworks, building rules, empowering police to do the work, empowering courts to do the work – it’s a slow process, obviously, because you’re talking about crimes that are committed on a massive scale where you have mass victimization, a lot of perpetrators, difficult social problems that are involved. So the lawyer is not going to be enough,” said Sadat

She said there is a need for humanitarian aid workers, sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists to help. “So my part of this job is a very small slice, but it’s an important slice because if you don’t have the rule written in the rule book, you can’t go out and say ‘You violated the law.’ You can only say ‘Well, you did something mean, or you did something inappropriate, or we think this is illegal.’ And unfortunately this has no weight.”

Sadat believes it is highly important to develop systems within international law to deal with the various complexities of Crimes Against Humanity, particularly the International Criminal Court. Sadat said the ICC is destined to deal with the top perpetrators. The international justice mechanism is most often used to try those who are deemed most responsible for violations of human rights.

“Those individuals [who are considered the most responsible] can actually be deterred. Sometimes it’s hard because when you have mass criminality, you can have mob violence, you can have lots of things that are difficult to deter using law. You might need better police training, capacity building, economic incentives, etc. But the leadership – those are folks who have typically carefully calculated that they want to use violence as a way to maintain political power or have access to resources, mineral wealth, or other wealth, in a lot of the African countries,” said Sadat.

African Crimes Against Humanity over the last 20 to 30 years were one of the many focuses of Sadat’s lecture. The prevalence of issues such as ethnic cleansing, in the case of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, and child abduction, in the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army of the 1980s, are incredibly high, she said.

In fact, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Russ Pottle was surprised by just how widespread such crimes are today – and not only in Africa.

“I didn’t realize before meeting [Sadat], the widespread of all this issue. I had forgotten, of course, that the United States had not ratified important treaties, but it was interesting to hear her connection because it goes way back. The institute that she runs is named for one of the Nuremberg prosecutors and she knows him, still. But it’s just that personal connection and how she’s continuing work that started in 1945 that everyone basically forgot for 50 years. So it’s just really been eye-opening,  memory jogging, and it’s been galvanizing,” said Pottle.

Professor of religious studies Joseph Curran said he found it “fascinating” that there is consensus among many different countries that there has to be a kind of accountability – not to the law of a nation – but accountability to humanity and the development of the legal infrastructure. “It’s very practical but really super idealistic. The idea that we would reach a place where people would not commit Crimes Against Humanity because they recognize that they just had an obligation to their fellow human beings that was rooted in law and had real practical consequences for that. I find that really interesting,” said Curran.

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