As a former legal officer for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Grant Dawson knows better than most the consequences when war erupts on a barbarous scale: “I went to detention centres where people were raped and tortured and killed in ways that you could not possibly imagine. You couldn’t imagine it.”
Dawson now applies the hard-won lessons he learnt at ICTY in his current job as the Principal Legal Officer of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). At a recent HAGUE TALKS, Dawson explained that he now puts a greater premium on preventing harm than on dealing with the aftermath.
As part of Justice Hub’s #MyJustice series, we feature his recent HAGUE TALK:
Pale blue dot
In 1990, the year I graduated from high school, the Voyager 1 spacecraft finished its tour of our solar system and then headed for interstellar space. Carl Sagan, a physicist who worked on the project, convinced NASA to turn the camera on Voyager toward earth, take a picture and send it back to us.
That picture was and is the furthest picture ever taken of our planet which appears as a tiny, little, pale blue dot about one and a half pixels large. That photo, which usually inspires awe in people, actually made me angry and sad when I saw it. The image of our planet as this minuscule dot in the vastness of the solar system made all the wars that we’ve fought seem meaningless and the suffering that they have caused completely unnecessary.
But after the anger and the sadness, I actually felt hope because I wanted to make things better. I wanted my tiny life on that tiny planet to have some meaning to it. I wanted to make a difference.
Most horrendous crimes
My work at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was to conduct the trials of senior military and political leaders who were accused of the most horrendous crimes one can imagine.
I would sit in the courtroom with hundreds of witnesses and listen to their stories. I would hear about entire families and communities just wiped out and about the hundreds of thousands of people forcibly displaced from their homes.
I went on a site visit to the region where these crimes were committed. I went to detention centres where people were raped and tortured and killed in ways that you could not possibly imagine. You couldn’t imagine it.
Then I went to the mass graves where the dead were buried. I went to a minefield where the prisoners of war were forced to walk across the field to detonate the mines with their bodies. This not only cleared the field but it also allowed the perpetrators to get rid of the prisoners of war without expending precious ammunition to shoot and kill them.
I visited a hospital which during the armed conflict had the huge red and white Red Cross painted on the roof in order to prevent it from being targeted. You would think it would be spared because it’s a hospital. It’s a universally accepted place of refuge. But during the armed conflict, the wounded, including children who were there to be treated, had to take refuge in the basement because the hospital was being shelled.
Now these trials that are conducted in The Hague and elsewhere, they are vitally important for a number of reasons. They can bring some catharsis to the victims. The findings at the end of the trial, detailing autopsy reports and DNA analysis of the murder victims can bring some closure to families who have lost loved ones and would like to know what finally happened to them.
To prevent the harm
Bringing perpetrators to justice does advance the rule of law. However, after having done this for a number of years, I started to perceive the limitations of international criminal justice. No verdict in any trial can bring back a mother or a father from the dead. The damage is difficult to repair. Sometimes it is even impossible.
In addition, I started to feel frustrated and I wanted to perhaps try in a small way to prevent people from becoming victims before it happened. To prevent the harm and not just deal with the aftermath. This is where the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) comes into the picture.
The mandate of OPCW, put simply, is to prevent harm from happening before it happens. We aim to verifiably destroy an entire category of weapons of mass destruction and to make sure they never come back. I’ll give you an example.
In the summer of 2016, the remnant of the chemical agents that had been left over from the now-defunct Gaddafi regime were sitting in the middle of the Libyan desert. There were real security concerns that the chemical weapons were going to fall into the hands of non-state actors and be used to harm innocent people. So the international community got together and organised a multinational operation to get rid of those chemical weapons agents by moving them out of Libya and destroying them.
This happened in fairly rapid succession. The chemical weapons were shipped from the middle of the desert, through potentially hostile territory, to a port on the Mediterranean Sea. They were then loaded onto a ship and transported under military escort, through the straits of Gibraltar and then the North Sea to a port in Germany. The were then offloaded and transported to a destruction facility where they are currently being destroyed in an environmentally sound manner.
People need to rise to the challenge
That sounds pretty smooth but it was more complicated than that. There were so many legal, logistical and financial difficulties that we had to overcome. Every time that we hit an obstacle, we met the challenge head-on. We worked the problem and we found a solution. Our motto was “failure is not an option” and we’re going to make this happen.
It was an example of how international institutions and partnerships can work to deliver a real and measurable security benefit for the Libyan people, the neighbours of the Libyans and, ultimately, for all of us. Those chemical weapons agents will never be turned into weapons and they will never be used to harm anyone.
There are a lot of dangers out there that need to be prevented and I think that people need to rise to the challenge. One of my favourite sayings goes something like this: Pessimists complain about the wind; optimists expect the wind is going to change; realists adjust the sails. So the question I would like to leave you with today is as follows: when you think about victims of armed conflict across the world, are you going to complain about it; are you going to expect it to change; or are going to adjust your sails and try to make a difference?
Grant Dawson currently works as the Principal Legal Officer of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Previously, he has served as a Legal Officer of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and an Assistant Attorney General. He has published a number of scholarly works, lectured on international law, is a member of the bars of New York and Washington, DC, and earned a Juris Doctor Degree from Georgetown University Law Centre and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Classics at Columbia College in New York City.
HAGUE TALKS is a meeting place for creative minds, peace inventors and game changers in the field of peace and justice. For more info visit http://www.haguetalks.com/