Friday, December 19, 2008

Are War Crimes Prosecutions Fair?

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda yesterday sentenced three men to life in prison for their role in the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s.

War crimes trials are an interesting phenomenon. They exist because the world believes the perpetrators of genocides and mass murders should be held accountable. This is a sound humanitarian theory, but it's interesting who gets prosecuted.

A New York Times story about the sentencing mentions the possible role played by France in the genocide, saying "The Tutsi rebels have argued that the militant Hutu, perhaps with France's help, may have been involved, hoping to create the pretext for a long-planned extermination of the Tutsi." No one from France was tried.

A story in Australia's PerthNow says, "The genocide saw extremist Hutu militia slaughter minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 100 days, leading to accusations that Western nations watched them unfold without moving to stop them." But no one from a Western nation has been tried.

A similarly awful situation is currently underway in the Congo. Flagrant human rights abuses occur daily, which leads the Times correspondents to wonder if similar justice could ever be pronounced there. They quote an Africa scholar, who says, "'Everybody has dirty hands' in eastern Congo."

The United States government knew about Hitler's concentration camps long before it chose to enter World War II. That decision has always seemed hideous. Practical, perhaps, but still hideous.

In college, I studied the Indonesian massacre of 1965, in which almost one million Indonesians were murdered by their neighbors on suspicion of being communists. No one knows who fueled and provoked the incident, but many believe that the CIA was involved (1965 was the height of anti-Communist fervor in the CIA, and they did plan similar missions elsewhere).

In Indonesia, and in World War II Germany, and now with Rwanda, those in authority have tried to say that the genocides were "spontaneous." A genocide is never spontaneous. It's a planned and systematic strategy, and also the boiling-over of generations of indrawn hatred. But it is definitely not spontaneous. The very idea of a "spontaneous" genocide is ludicrous—when was the last someone randomly turned to his neighbor and said, "I was going to go to the store today, but I think I'll exterminate your entire family instead."

When it comes to crimes against humanity, very few hands are clean. Such is the nature of these crimes. Although the men who received their sentences yesterday no doubt deserved that and maybe worse, it all comes back to the Times quote. Everybody has dirty hands. This might be part of the reason why the world is so enthusiastic (but still so selective) about prosecuting war crimes after the fact. (After all, no sentence could ever really even out what happened in Rwanda.)

For those who doubt that the prosecution is selective, understand that some people think George Bush should be tried for war crimes based on the US military's torture record and the civilian deaths in Iraq. If prisoner torture and civilian deaths in Iraq seem like necessary "collateral damage" in times of war, perhaps that's a semantic rather than a realistic differentiation. What's the difference between a "war crime" and "war"? Legally speaking?

I don't know. Also, is it fair that regular US soldiers, acting on the implicit encouragement of their superiors, received court martials for their role in the prisoner abuse scandal while those at the top of the military chain of command got off scot-free? Because that's certainly not the philosophy the UN is currently practicing in the Rwanda case.

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