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the politics of genocide trials

One of the interesting features of post-WW2 international politics are tribunals that punish those who conduct genocides. The New Yorker  has an interview with Thierry Cruvellier, who has a new book on his work documenting tribunals. For me, the most interesting part was the politics and incentives of these tribunals. On why genocides foreign sponsors escape:

Then, of course, there’s a more embarrassing reason these courts don’t go after foreign responsibility: judges and prosecutors don’t want to get into trouble with permanent members of the U.N. Security Council or Secretariat, which pays most of their salaries. It’s an obvious weakness of these tribunals, but perhaps it’s just not their function. Their credibility problem may lie much more in the poor quality of the investigations, and in the fact that only the weak are prosecuted.

The most shocking part of the interview was when they pointed out some thing I had never though of, but is obvious – the massive tendency to focus on right wing or authoritarian regimes and the near silence on left wing regimes (e.g, Maoism, the Soviets, etc):

You make the key point that the Duch trial was the first international tribunal case to address the crimes of Communism. The Rwanda and Yugoslavia courts, like the prosecutions at Nuremberg and Tokyo, dealt with crimes of ultra-nationalist regimes, which you identify as ideologies of the right. Only the Cambodia tribunal has addressed the crimes of the left, and you say that made human-rights lawyers notably uneasy. You say they had great difficulty addressing the connection between Communist ideology and systematic mass murder. You say that much of the tribunal crowd preferred to imagine the Khmer Rouge as noble until it went awry and became vile—and that some were outright fellow-travellers. For instance, the woman hired by the U.N. to handle Khmer Rouge victims at the Duch trial was an unrepentant Maoist. Why was that? And how did this sympathy for the left affect the general atmosphere of the trial?

There is a historical lineage between the far left and the human-rights movement. In the nineteen-sixties, after Stalin’s terror was widely acknowledged; in the seventies, after Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of the Gulag; and then, finally, in the eighties, after the horrors of Pol Pot were fully revealed, many Western intellectuals moved from the discredited and disgraced Marxism-Leninism to the ideals of universal human rights. As opposed to the boredom of prosaic reforms, advocating for human rights is, in its own way, another grandiose and poetic enterprise where we, as a people, fight against exploiters. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron astutely noted, human rights, as a political philosophy, is based on a notion of purity. It’s not about taking responsibility for a decision “in unpredicted circumstances, based on incomplete knowledge”—that’s politics, said Aron. Instead, human rights function as a refuge for utopia.

What was interesting to observe at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was that former Western Maoists or fellow-travellers were not transformed, when they became disillusioned with Communism, into skeptical minds. They now presented themselves as human-rights defenders. The appeal of “pure” ideologies seemed irresistible to them. Revolutionaries get indignant about police abuse or ruthless capitalism, and then forgive, in the name of the revolution, every injustice they had otherwise denounced. Interestingly, the moral indignation of human-rights activists can suddenly be silenced when institutions that they helped create and that were supposed to exemplify their ideals—such as international war-crimes tribunals—start violating the very principles they have claimed to stand for. They say that criticism would serve the “enemies” of justice. They begin to accept that the end justifies the means. Double standards widely apply. The drive that often made them efficient when they worked in a hostile environment now, when they are empowered, transforms into an intransigence that can make them very insensitive to realities that don’t fit their ideological paradigm. International tribunals can be a harsh reminder that injustice and unfairness are not incompatible with humanist intentions.

At the Cambodia tribunal, a surprising number of Westerners who did not come from the far left also showed a level of sympathy for the “good intentions” of the Communist project. As a result, the trial was never going to be a trial of Communism as a political philosophy. Instead, it was all about Pol Potism, circumscribed and vilified as a despicable betrayal of a genuine revolutionary ideal. Such leniency would not be seen at trials against ideologies of the right.

There is much more. Highly recommended.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 19, 2014 at 1:22 am

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  1. I thought the main driver of this disparity was the fact that the right-wing authoritarian regimes were overthrown, usually by foreign powers. History (or justice in this case) written by the victors and all that. That also explains the trial of Khmer Rouge leader Duch, since that was in cooperation with Cambodia’s current government, the Khmer Rouge having been deposed with help from Vietnam.

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    joshtk76

    May 19, 2014 at 2:26 am


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