Book explores war crimes tribunals

Yvonne Chiu Hays

Princeton NJ -- War crimes tribunals often have been regarded as simply "victors' justice" -- punishment a country that wins a war inflicts on a country that loses. Gary Bass argues against this dominant attitude in his new book "Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals."


"Liberal governments sometime pursue war crimes trials; illiberal ones never have," writes Bass, assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and a former reporter for The Economist. For example, the British and Americans have shown, on occasion, the will to extend their domestic policies of due process beyond their borders and apply their particular brand of legalism in the field of international relations.

Bass' book sets out to understand what makes governments support international war crimes tribunals and, conversely, what makes governments abandon them. In historical chapters starting from the trials of Bonapartists in 1815 up to contemporary efforts to prosecute war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, Bass reports and analyzes how world leaders have confronted the moral, political and military dilemmas in punishing war criminals.

"What's really striking is that liberal states have chosen real justice after their victories, rather than just shooting our enemies or having show trials," Bass says.

That influence is clear in the case of the Nuremberg trials. Bass relates how there was pressure in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration to execute the Nazis after World War II. However, American leaders like Henry Stimson, secretary of war, advocated for the defendants' due process because he feared mass killings would embarrass the entire war effort and cheapen the values for which the country fought.

"Stimson was clearly repelled at the prospect of executions, as something beneath America's standards -- even for Nazi war criminals," Bass writes.

While Nuremberg remains the most successful example of war crimes prosecution, it was not a singular occurrence. Bass details in his systematic and comparative account of the politics of international war crimes tribunals that such trials are a fairly regular part of international politics. Most of those trials, however, have been failures.

America's record is slowly improving, according to Bass. "Since 1997, NATO has started arresting war crimes suspects, including some major local figures," says Bass, who came up with the idea for the book while a reporter covering the Clinton administration's foreign policy.

Most often, Bass concludes that liberal states pursue justice when it serves their principled ideas and when the crimes were committed against their own citizenry. "The single best guarantee of a stung and moralistic reaction from a liberal state has been its own victimization," he writes. "But there are reasons to think that the answer may be broader and more complicated than that, and that liberal states could, over time, be made to be less selfish and more concerned with the suffering of innocents who do not happen to be their own citizens."

Noting the difficulties of war crimes trials, Bass says that there are indeed grave risks in carrying them out. They rely on foreign political will and military force. They also can interfere with substantive justice through technical acquittals or spark nationalist backlash in a defeated country. "Or a moralistic insistence on punishing war crimes may make it impossible to do business with bloodstained leaders, who, however repulsive, might end a war," Bass writes.

Despite those difficulties, Bass still insists that war crimes tribunals are better than the alternatives -- vengeance and show trials. "It is simply not an alternative to pretend that war crimes did not happen. Justice, of a sort, will be done; the only question is whether it will be finely tuned or crude."

Since the 402-page book was published late last year by Princeton University Press, it has earned favorable reviews in publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post Book World, The Economist, Foreign Affairs and The New Republic. For more information, visit this Web site


April 9, 2001
Vol. 90, No. 23
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Book explores war crimes tribunals

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By the numbers: Campus acreage
Nassau Notes
Calendar of events

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Contributing writers: Karin Dienst, Yvonne Chiu Hays, Marilyn Marks, Steven Schultz
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett