An analysis of the politics underlying war-crimes tribunals—from the exile of Napoleon at St. Helena up to the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic for Serbian atrocities committed in Kosovo.
Bass (International Affairs/Princeton) turns his scholarly eye and journalistic experience to analyzing today’s seemingly tepid prosecution of indicted Yugoslavian war criminals at The Hague. He argues that western nations became more democratic as they moved out of the 19th and into the 20th century. This move toward democracy translated into concern for universal human rights: conquering nations began to favor legalistic justice for individual war criminals rather than retributive vengeance against conquered populations. In making his points, the author begins by presenting the punishment of the Napoleonic leaders as a struggle between Prussia’s desire for revenge and a moderate British appeal to legalism. He then traces the growth of legalistic concern for human rights from the ineffective WWI tribunals in Leipzig and Constantinople to their idealistic triumph after WWII at Nuremberg. He is able to demonstrate that the idealism driving such trials is always tempered by domestic political issues. Thus the western powers’ reluctance to actively pursue indicted criminals like Milosevic stems from a self-serving impulse not to risk their own soldiers without overwhelming domestic support. While such domestic selfishness often results in uneven and disappointing human rights policies, Bass demonstrates that even the perfunctory pursuit of justice is better than a retributive cycle of violence.
Employing detailed research and compelling arguments, Bass offers timely and convincing evidence that international war tribunals provide a viable process by which human rights can be upheld throughout the international community.