War crimes are once again headline news these days, as the Russian withdrawal from the Kyiv region has exposed numerous bodies of Ukrainian civilians allegedly executed during the Russian offensive of February – March 2022. Ukrainian President Zelensky, United States President Biden, and other political leaders have accused Russian military forces of committing war crimes in the Ukraine War.
Unfortunately, war crimes are rarely prosecuted, however. The International Criminal Court and other judicial institutions encounter many difficulties in instigating war crimes prosecutions, especially during ongoing conflicts.
Nonetheless, war crimes prosecutions do sometimes move forward. When they do, historians are often closely involved in the research to build evidence for these judicial cases.
Ann Schneider, a Latin American Historian, works on war crimes with the Office for Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Center is based in Virginia and focuses on tracking down military officers and soldiers accused of war crimes in the Guatemalan Civil War, Salvadoran Civil War, and other “dirty wars.”
The Washington Post reports that: “Unlike most academics, who tend who study their material with a degree of intellectual detachment, Schneider is a historian who is actively trying to right the wrongs of Latin America’s recent past. She is a bridge between those in the university world who research war crimes and federal law enforcement officials who can actually do something about them.”
Historians of civil conflict often encounter disturbing evidence of brutal rapes, killings, and massacres, but few have opportunities to pursue the perpetrators of such acts of violence against civilians.
Schneider describes her work on war crimes in Latin America: “’I think of myself as a forensic historian. … I research and write. My job is about bringing things to light and uncovering the past, through these cases.”
According to The Washington Post, “Historians of Latin America who focus on the Cold War are well-versed in the role of the United States in supporting right-wing military governments in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere. In some cases, the State Department intentionally resettled former military officials in the United States to create better conditions for peace negotiations.”
My students in HIST 399 Communal Strife: Civil Wars in Comparative Perspective at Northern Illinois University will be interested in this piece about war crimes prosecutions, since we discuss the Salvadorian Civil War in some detail.
The article also offers undergraduate and graduate students a glimpse into the Office for Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center and the world of government historians. NIU students sometimes pursue careers as government historians with various agencies of the U.S. federal government or state governments.
The Washington Post reports on forensic historians and war crimes prosecution.