5 Legal Takeaways from Mass Atrocities

Journalist filming a Haitian refugee camp
On June 20–22, the WSBA World Peace Through Law Section is sponsoring a CLE through the Seattle University School of Law: “Mass Atrocities and Human Rights: Legal Responses and Continued Challenges.”

In 2009, despite some internal warnings, the Obama administration began easing sanctions on the Myanmar government. Almost a decade later, with thousands of Rohingya killed and hundreds of thousands who’ve fled the genocide, it’s easy to wonder, what if more people were there to pressure our government? What if there were more people who recognized the early signs of a mass atrocity and who could have built a legal case that might have prevented it?

These are the types of question Regina Paulose, chair-elect of the World Peace Through Law Section, wonders about: What might be prevented if legal professionals are there to challenge governments and stir action?

On June 20–22, the WSBA World Peace Through Law Section is sponsoring a CLE through the Seattle University School of Law: “Mass Atrocities and Human Rights: Legal Responses and Continued Challenges.”

Paulose recommends the CLE not just for legal professionals who focus on international law, but all practice areas. “What I want to do is encourage people to come out here, and any questions that they have, no matter what that question might be, this is a space where we can come and have these conversations—and that’s OK.”

Here are the top five takeaways any legal professional can learn from studying mass atrocities, based on interviews with Paulose and Anna Moritz, chair of the World Peace Through Law Section.

1. What Constitutes a Mass Atrocity

“Ethnic cleansing” isn’t recognized as a crime under international law. The proper term for this type of crime is “genocide.” Other mass atrocities that violate international law include:

  • War crimes: For example, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.
    Crimes against humanity: Such as the rape of thousands of Rohingya women by the Myanmar Army, which Paulose called a coordinated effort to “destroy women.”

2. Statelessness is Ubiquitous in Mass Atrocities

If you look at 10 cases of international atrocities, nine of them will involve statelessness, according to Paulose, who has worked with Rohingya survivors, among others. The 1954 U.N. “Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons” defines statelessness as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”

Statelessness lays the groundwork for more horrific events by stripping a group of people of their status, their home, and in many ways their basic humanity. It is a commonality among groups who have been brutalized by states throughout the world and typically a justification used to defend horrendous human rights abuses.

3. Mass Atrocities Begin as Infringements on Basic Rights

Take away a peoples’ identity and culture, and it can snowball until you’re seeing monstrous human rights violations like the forced sterilization of women, which happened to Native American women in the 1970s.

Mass atrocities start locally, Paulose said. And lawyers are well positioned to recognize the smaller rights violations that have the potential to spin out into something far worse.

“As attorneys, we should always be having these discussions because rights are fundamentally what we protect,” Paulose said.

4. Lessons Can Be Drawn From Mass Atrocities

Even for a legal professional who may never set foot in a refugee camp, or even step outside of the state of Washington, there is something to be learned from studying mass atrocities. Consider, for example, domestic issues that might not reach the level of genocide or war crimes, but are still a violation of rights, such as mass incarceration of people of color. For Moritz, the chair of the World Peace Through Law Section, international mass atrocities can provide a lens to look at issues at home: “How do we think of reform? How do we think of defending people who have been put unjustly into prison?”

“Anything we know about the world in a global sense informs our own governance and, hopefully, how we approach the future,” she added.

5. International Events Impact Domestic Law

Mass atrocities certainly aren’t always international incidents, and even events on the other side of the world can impact a legal professional’s work back at home.

For instance, legal professional should know that human trafficking survivors aren’t usually found by police. Instead, medical professionals are usually the first touchpoint with people who have been ensnared into this form of modern-day slavery.

A Washington state legal professional might also be presented with a client who is stateless, “so what do you do when you sit down to do the will?” Paulose said. Or how might an immigration lawyer handle an unaccompanied minor who technically does not belong to any state?”

Learn More about the Section

To learn more about the World Peace Through Law Section, which focuses on international affairs and issues of war, peace, and law, visit their section page.

One thought on “5 Legal Takeaways from Mass Atrocities


    World peace through law? Really? How all-encompassing can WSBA leaders make the mission anyway? Again, my answer to a Bar which has taken upon itself such illusions of “save the world” grandeur is . . . a VOLUNTARY BAR ASSOCIATION. It isn’t that I am a heartless curmudgeon, I just think there are limits to the role the “Washington State” Bar Association should be playing. And as gauged by a 40% increase in dues, its leaders are not doing a very good job on their own at limiting its scope.

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