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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

What We Need to Know About War Crimes   

Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know

Edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff
W.W. Norton and Co.
399 pages; hard cover $30, paperback $19.95


By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Earlier this year, Newsday's Roy Gutman sat in a McLean, Virginia, bar sipping a beer and musing about his latest project, an A-to-Z guide to international laws that govern modern warfare. The publication's release was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions in August.

The veteran correspondent, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for exposing Serbian-run concentration camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina, noted that a deficiency in his own reporting in the Balkans became a driving force behind the book, co-edited with David Rieff.

Like dozens of others reporting in Bosnia, Gutman wrote of hospitals being shelled, of mosques and churches being blown up, of tens of thousands driven at gunpoint from their homes. "I didn't know back then that what I was witnessing was more than a tragedy. It was a war crime to deliberately attack a hospital or destroy a cultural monument. If you know a crime is being committed, you can go up the chain of command and ask, 'Do you approve of this?' In [the Balkans], we missed the big story," he said that night in McLean.

Six months later, Gutman delivered a similar message, pegged to the promotion of his potently descriptive collection of case studies. This time, the interview was conducted by the BBC and transmitted across Europe and Africa, two continents scarred by late 20th-century slaughter.

The book, part of a Crimes of War Project at American University in Washington, D.C., issues a challenge to the foreign correspondents who cover global conflicts. Simply put, if reporters know the international rules governing warfare, they can write more accurately, effectively and with greater impact.

While the title strives for a wider audience, clearly the international journalism community stands to benefit from this compilation that redefines what is important in modern-day war coverage and provides a legal framework that can be applied in the field.

The mission is stated in the preface by Gutman and Rieff: "Journalists who cover wars and humanitarian emergencies of the post-Cold War world know far better than their audiences or their critics how much they are operating in uncharted territory. Understanding what is going on in the midst of all the havoc, confusion and disinformation is anything but simple. And almost nothing in their training prepares reporters to be able to make the necessary distinctions between legal, illegal and criminal acts."

"Crimes of War" attempts to fill that gap by presenting an "I-was-there" format laced with practical information and citations of international law that journalists might adapt to coverage anywhere in the world. Under C for compelling military service, for instance, Patrick J. Sloyan of Newsday notes that forcing POWs to serve in the army of a hostile power is a grave breach, according to the Third Geneva Convention. And it's a war crime for prisoners to be forced to perform dangerous work, such as serving as human mine sweepers, as they often did in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The roster of contributors reads like a who's who of international correspondents. Among them: CNN's Christiane Amanpour; Pulitzer winners John Burns and David Rohde of the New York Times; Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio, author of a book on the siege of Sarajevo; and Caryle Murphy of the Washington Post, a Pulitzer winner for coverage of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1991.

Black-and-white images by noted photojournalists--including James Nachtwey, Gilles Peress and Susan Meiselas of Magnum Photos, and Eddie Adams, who won a Pulitzer in 1969 for his picture of a street execution in Vietnam--add to the chilling reality of children turned into killers and the grotesque torture of civilians.

"Crimes of War" is not an easy or pleasant read. Often, the highly personalized accounts contain startling, raw detail. In an overview of rules that govern POW camps, Ed Vulliamy, a prize-winning correspondent who covered Bosnia for the Observer in London, wrote: "The [Serbian] guards were often drunk and singing as they tortured, beat, mutilated, and slaughtered prisoners."

At times, the A-to-Z format becomes confusing, bogged down in terminology and cross-references. A few entries have a snapshot feel, skimming the surface of appalling trends, such as the use of environmental warfare. Some of the descriptions and images tend to disturb as much as they inform.

The book's strengths are the solid examples and precise information provided by journalists and legal experts, a first-of-a-kind guide for those assigned to conflicts that increasingly have moved beyond military codes of conduct toward ruthless paramilitaries and rebel armies that target the innocent. A glance at international headlines signals that there is vast potential for follow-up.

Contributing writer Ricchiardi has reported exclusively from the Balkans.