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War Crimes and the Meaning of Genocide

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War Crimes and the Meaning of Genocide

A conversation with war crimes lawyer Michael Karnavas.

War Crimes and the Meaning of Genocide

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan listens on during his appeal at the Khmer Rouge tribunal at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 18, 2021.

Credit: X/KR Tribunal

Michael Karnavas is an American-trained lawyer licensed in Massachusetts and Alaska with 40 years of experience focused largely on war crimes and charges of genocide at tribunals in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia.

He has worked as a criminal defense lawyer, in state and federal courts in the United States, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Tribunal for Rwanda, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), and the International Criminal Court.

At the ECCC, he defended the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary and the former naval commander Meas Muth, whose trial was abandoned amid an impasse between international and local judges.

The Khmer Rouge tribunal has received mixed reviews but its unprecedented structure as a hybrid tribunal – a combination of local and international judges and prosecutors – is a potential model for future war crimes trials, including Ukrainian efforts to prosecute Russian leaders.

War crimes lawyer Michael Karnavas. (Photo supplied)

Karnavas spoke with The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt about the meaning of genocide and the legal precedents established in Cambodia, including the relatively new charge of aggression, which is reserved for crimes committed by those holding the highest levels of power.

He is also a regular blogger who writes about what constitutes a genocide, which has generated heated debates given South Africa’s attempts to prosecute Israel in the International Court of Justice following its invasion of Gaza, in response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

Over the years, Karnavas has also consulted on complex cases, including death penalty cases, has trained legal teams, and is frequently consulted on issues related to professional conduct and ethics.

He has taught trial and appellate advocacy skills to lawyers at various programs and institutions, including the National Criminal Defense College, Cardozo Law School, and the Grotius Center at Leiden University.

He has also taught judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and investigators on trial advocacy, evidence, professional ethics, and substantive international criminal law.