Lumen Scholar probes complexities of international humanitarian law

Since the 1600s, lawyers and scholars have grappled with how to best bring to justice the men and women who commit war crimes. Elon University senior Elizabeth Leman studied three of the biggest global conflicts in recent history to shed light on the complexities of international humanitarian law, and her work is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2011

Elon University senior Elizabeth Leman with her Lumen Prize mentor, professor David Crowe

The history and international studies double major from Ashburn, Va., has traveled to Germany and Sri Lanka for her work, interviewing dozens of people and researching the conflicts that have helped to shape the laws that govern the way wars are fought.

Under the guidance of her Lumen Prize mentor, professor David Crowe in the Department of History, Leman examined three cases where international humanitarian law was either employed or, in some instances, ignored: the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders, the genocide in Rwanda, and the civil war in Sri Lanka.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements.

The program includes course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

Leman recently sat down this spring with the Office of University Relations to share details of her work.

Can you share a little bit about your research?

I’m researching international humanitarian law, which is the law of war, essentially. I have three cases studies that I’m looking at: the Nuremberg tribunal following World War II, the Rwanda tribunal for the 1994 genocide, and the case for war crimes in Sri Lanka. They’re very different cases, and I’m looking at how the practice of international humanitarian law has evolved. It’s a pretty new field, relatively speaking, and I’m looking at the role the international community can play in these situations.

Are these mutually agreed upon rules?

There’s a body of what’s called customary law, things that are almost taken for granted that you wouldn’t do. For example, you wouldn’t purposely kill civilians in war. The Red Cross Conventions talked about neutral parties in war – doctors and medics and people that transport wounded soldiers – that you don’t fire upon. Also things like creating safe zones or neutral territory.

Would it be fair to say that a lot of these things weren’t put into code until after Nuremberg?

A lot was already codified in various agreements, mostly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and rules were put into one document with Nuremberg. They took from a lot of different agreements and applied it to what happened, putting it all down in one place and standardizing things.

But I think it’s becoming antiquated because it applies to a different kind of warfare than what we have today. That was more traditional warfare, states clashing with one another, what you would think of with armies on a battlefield. That’s not what we have today with guerrilla warfare and terrorism. It’s harder to apply Nuremberg law to those kinds of situations.

What have you been doing for your research?

A lot of reading! And I met with a few people when I was abroad in Germany, and with a lot of people when I was abroad in Sri Lanka, talking to them about what should be done and what’s been going on since the war ended.

Have you been able to draw any conclusions based on your readings and interviews?

Drawing specific conclusions is tough. Mostly what I’ve been dealing with is questions about the balance between state sovereignty and the role of the international community. If a country is within its own borders committing genocide, like in Rwanda, what’s the place of the international community to step in and do anything about it, if it’s contained, and when is that line crossed? These questions are really hard to answer.

Talk about how state sovereignty affects the type of laws that can be put into place, and not just the types of laws, but how you can enforce them.

For hundreds of years, the gold standard of international law or international relations has been state sovereignty, agreeing that no country can get involved within another country’s borders. I think that dates back to monarchies and the idea that a king owns everything on his ground – the land, the people, the resources, everything that’s there, and no one else has the right to get involved to say anything to do anything.

That idea becomes a problem for international humanitarian law when a country is committing crimes within its borders. Rwanda is the best example I have of that. And it’s just knowing when that line is crossed, when the international community has a right to get involved. People pressure their governments, and governments themselves see horrible things happening, people being killed, thousands a day and want to get involved. Knowing when it’s appropriate to step in is what’s tricky.

A lot of people oftentimes reduce it to a numbers game. Six million in the Holocaust. Eight hundred thousand in Rwanda. And you want to compare (events) to that standard, saying, ‘Well, if it gets that bad, we’ll get involved.’ Using numbers is not the best indicator of a situation or a good way to catch it before it spirals out of control.

How do you hope your research will be used?

I would hope it helps people look at international conflicts, like in Sri Lanka, which is a recently ended conflict still being dealt with, and help them think about it in a wider context. That’s one advantage of using different case studies. They’re across time and geography. That provides context and helps think about what to do in a more meaningful, appropriate way.

Would this research have been possible without the Lumen Prize?

I don’t think so. I bought all my books and am pretty sure I would not have gone to Sri Lanka without the Lumen Prize. It financed my trip there, which was so helpful and so pivotal in focusing my research. It paid for my travel in Germany. I visited Nuremberg because I had the funds to do it. It was definitely very essential.

What’s the next step for you? What are your plans for after Elon?

I’ve applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Sri Lanka for nine months. I’ll hear about that in May. If I get it I’ll be there from October through May 2012.

Will you go into history or law after that?

I’m planning on applying to law school to study international humanitarian law, which is a pretty small field, so it narrows down the field of schools I’ll apply to. But I’ll study law and possibly also photojournalism.

What is it about international humanitarian law that captivates you?

It’s a really interesting field because it’s still developing so much, and there are so many tricky questions that almost seem like they just don’t have an answer, and you need to keep searching for one.

One of the biggest problems I’ve found is that international humanitarian law can be applied really unevenly globally. Major powers are not held as accountable as smaller powers. The U.S. is not held accountable for things it does in war time, where as when the war in Sri Lanka ended, everyone pointed their fingers at the government and wanted to hold it accountable with the war crimes commission.

Also, the laws are enforced unequally within conflicts. Nuremberg was one of the really good example. They call it ‘victor’s justice,’ where pretty much whoever wins has all the power. They write the history books. They prosecute who they think should be prosecuted. It ends up being very one-sided justice, and it leaves a lot of bitterness in people who get the raw end of the deal. When I was in Sri Lanka that was one thing I heard a lot.

The solution to that is to prosecute evenly, which is huge, and it’s a really hard thing to do. It comes down to even bigger problem since the UN Security Council is dominated by the West and can veto anything they don’t want it to do. It’s changing the entire system.

That’s a lot easier said than done.

A lot easier.

What have you learned about yourself, and scholarship and general, because of your experience with the Lumen Prize?

Writing is definitely very helpful, which is kind of a drag when I don’t want to sit down and write a whole lot! But that’s really how I’m learning about the topic. I spent the entire fall semester writing. I came up with this huge document, a history of everything that had happened in my case studies, and since I’ve gone to Sri Lanka I’m refocusing everything and rewriting, but I don’t really think what I did last semester was a waste because it gave me such a good handle on what I’m doing. I just had to work through everything. That was one thing I learned about scholarship. Drafts, and rewriting, and putting things in your own words is such a good way to learn them.

And I’ve found what I’ve wanted to do after Elon, so that’s good, and it’s something I’m interested in and can do long term. I learned that what I’m really interested in is change at the most fundamental level: laws and policies. Hopefully I’ll be able to work somehow in this capacity in the future.