An important event took place two months ago. The Netherlands Court of Appeal convicted and sentenced to 19 years a Dutch businessman, Guus Kouwenhoven, for complicity in war crimes that were perpetrated in Liberia a little less than two decades ago.
Kouwenhoven was a timber merchant and had extensive logging interests in Liberia which he exploited together with former Liberian president Charles Taylor and his associates.
No, he was not sanctioned for his association with Taylor; neither did he actively take part in the atrocities. He was charged with breaking UN arms sanctions imposed on Liberia during the civil war.
The logic of his conviction was that the arms he supplied were used in committing war crimes. This was the first time that the term “Accomplice liability” came into play in a war crimes tribunal. It opens new avenues that the people who fuel wars (arms dealers, consumers of raw materials from conflict zones) could come under scrutiny.
Why has it taken all this time to realise that profiteering from mass atrocities – either by supplying weapons or in order to get access to cheap resources – is also a crime?
The international tribunals have always gone for the easy pickings; the executioners and foot soldiers. The people on top of the pecking order, those who pull the strings, have never had any reasons to worry.
Many questions could be asked regarding the Rwandan tragedy; how far does liability for the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi go?
Would the French judiciary have the same courage as the Dutch to bring their own nationals to book? Will those who broke the UN arms embargo imposed on Rwanda at the height of the Genocide ever atone for their crimes? Whatever the case, Kouwenhoven is a necessary case study.