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
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Download
  • Text Size A A A

Court Dreams

Stewart was never allowed toy guns as a kid. Raised in Wellington, New Zealand, he devoted himself to tennis, hoping one day to play professionally. Off the courts, he read books about New Zealander soldiers in World War I, and was stunned by the horror of trench warfare. “In these testimonies I read, people said they couldn’t open their mouths without getting a mouthful of flies. Then someone would blow a whistle, you’d go over the top, and most of your friends would be massacred. That was insane.” As Stewart engaged with this material, it produced in him a desire to understand the type of madness that led to these awful events.

Three days after finishing his law degree at Victoria University, Stewart moved to Florida to teach at the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy, where he met players like Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis, and Jennifer Capriati. After a year, he realized that he’d never turn pro, and decided to use his law degree to explore the questions that had haunted him since childhood. He left the clay courts and manicured lawns of Saddlebrook and was soon walking among the mass graves of Rwanda.

There, he recorded first-person accounts of gang rapes and butchered families — stories from a genocide that had unfolded while the American media fixated on the O. J. Simpson case. The motto of the Hutu slaughter was “Leave none to tell the story.” But even if they did, the West didn’t seem to be listening.

As Stewart carried out his research in Rwanda, he looked across the border and saw the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) descending into turmoil.

The Great War

The Second Congo War, also known as the Great War of Africa, was the deadliest conflict since World War II. Preceded by a series of massacres and cross-border skirmishes in the 1990s, the war displaced millions of refugees as it spread across eight nations between 1998 and 2003, ultimately killing more than five million people, the vast majority of them civilians.

It took less than a year for arms manufacturers and mining interests to turn the localized Congo War into a transcontinental resource grab for tin, tungsten, tantalum, gold, and diamonds, without regard for the environment or the local populations enslaved or destroyed in the process. Stewart saw the same patterns of plunder, death, and Western indifference that had plagued Rwanda.

“After my time in Rwanda, the DRC became my problem,” Stewart says. “I had met Jewish people for whom the Holocaust was a personal problem. Although the Holocaust was always a huge moral shock to me, it wasn’t until I worked with victims of atrocity in Africa that the DRC became for me a day-to-day personal problem.”

According to a scathing 2001 United Nations report, “The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because of its lucrative nature, has created a ‘win-win’ situation for all belligerents. Adversaries and enemies are at times partners in business ... prisoners of Hutu origin are mine workers of [the Rwandan Patriotic Army], enemies get weapons from the same dealers and use the same intermediaries. Business has superseded security concerns. The only loser in this huge business venture is the Congolese people.”

The Crime of Pillage

The term “pillage” may call to mind something as remote and antiquated as the fifth-century rampages of the Huns, but Stewart saw firsthand — in Rwanda, the Congo, and the former Yugoslavia — the results of modern pillage and the war economy it produces. He also saw the legal world’s ineffectiveness at preventing these catastrophes, focusing as it did on “transitional justice” — prosecuting crimes such as rape, torture, and genocide after the damage has been done.

“Armed groups often vie for control over resource-rich areas, bringing with them waves of violence as towns fall under the control of competing military groups.”

Most international criminal courts, Stewart says, target those “who bear the greatest responsibility” — the physical perpetrators — “instead of prosecuting corporate enablers who are more easily apprehended and more easily deterred by the threat of criminal prosecution.”

But what does pillage mean, exactly?

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (72)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time