The Pillage Option

How do you stop genocide before it starts? Legal theorist, James Stewart, has revived a forgotten strategy — and The Hague is listening.

by Chris Cannon ’00GS Published Fall 2013
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Photograph by Jörg Meyer

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work —
               I am the grass; I cover all.
                                                  — Carl Sandburg

There is not enough grass in Rwanda. On April 6, 1994, after decades of clashes between the Hutu government and Tutsi rebels, two surface-to-air missiles struck a plane carrying the Rwandan leader Juvénal Habyarimana. The flaming aircraft crashed into the garden of the presidential palace and disintegrated. Within hours of the attack, thousands of Hutus — incited by the government and goaded by the media — began sweeping through the small African nation, butchering civilians with the half million machetes the government had stockpiled for just such an opportunity. Over the next three months, 800,000 Tutsis died at the hands of the Hutu majority.

Seven years later, James Stewart ’13LAW, a twenty-five-year-old New Zealander, visited the ravaged nation for the first time and saw what the grass had yet to cover: open pits containing thousands of dead bodies preserved in lime. As a legal intern in the Office of the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Arusha, Tanzania, Stewart had come to investigate the murder, torture, and rape of Tutsis in the city of Butare.

One woman came to meet him after a long day’s walk. Over the course of several hours, she spoke about being raped thirty-five times, then being thrown down a well with the body parts of her family.

“When your imagination has been brought very close to the reality of what this looks like and how this felt for people, it’s disorienting,” Stewart says. “I didn’t understand any more what it meant, how the world was made up, what was really going on. How could we Westerners tolerate this?”

The experience set Stewart on his path. In the dozen years since, he has produced a body of work that is helping to slowly change the calculus of war atrocities. And he’s done it by recovering an old, neglected tactic: going after the international corporations that profit from the violence.

A Legal Framework

In the new glass-and-concrete law-school building at the University of British Columbia, Stewart, thirty-seven, enjoys a moment of peace. His office is white and spartan and smells of new carpet. The building’s eastern views hold Vancouver’s skyline and the mountains beyond. Stewart’s wide office window opens onto the Pacific.

“Have you ever met any human-rights defenders from third-world countries?” he says. “It’s terrifying to imagine the courage it takes to do what they do. I live in a damn nice city. I have a nice lifestyle. But I have seen some really bad things. If addressing these politically sensitive issues is what it takes to make a difference, then so be it.”

As a prosecutor and legal adviser for war-crimes tribunals, Stewart has spent years shifting between the killing fields of Central Africa and the courtrooms and relief organizations that are largely powerless to stop the slaughter. While the international justice system has grown incrementally more adept at punishing human-rights abuses in war-torn areas, the prosecutions are largely after the fact: very little is being done to prevent war atrocities against civilian populations.

Stewart’s research paper “Corporate War Crimes,” which he wrote in 2010 while working toward his JSD at Columbia, examined the responsibility of the extractive industries for illegally exploiting natural resources in modern war zones, and offered national and international courts a new tool: a legal framework to hold the natural-resource industry accountable for crimes against humanity.

The Business of War

Gold miners dig an open pit at the Chudja mine in northeastern Congo, February 2009. / Reuters / Finbarr O’ReillyWhile most war atrocities are committed by rebel groups or military units that operate outside the law, Stewart says, these groups “are almost entirely dependent upon commercial actors to purchase, transport, and market the illegally acquired resources in order to sustain the violence.” The cycle of destruction works this way: locals illegally exploit resources such as metals and minerals and sell them to the natural- resources industry, earning money to buy weapons from foreign arms manufacturers, which they use to perpetrate horrendous acts. The self-sustaining loop operates outside the realm of national or international law, leading to large-scale crimes against the local populations.

“Armed groups often vie for control over resource-rich areas,” says Stewart, “bringing with them waves of violence as towns fall under the control of competing military groups. Often, the intensity of this violence is directly tied to demand from Western markets, like when a major new game console enters the market before Christmas, or when regulators ban lead in circuit boards, causing a spike in global demand for the only substitute, tin.”

Holding corporations accountable, then, creates incentives for warring parties to observe the laws of war — a way to alter the trajectory of conflicts as they happen rather than waiting out the bloodshed and mopping up afterward.

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