Campus & Community

‘Staying the hand of vengeance’

5 min read

Carr Fellow Gary Bass makes the case for trying war criminals

Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice Michael Ignatieff (left) introduces Gary Bass, a Carr Center fellow visiting from Princeton, where he is assistant professor of politics and international affairs. (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

Why not just shoot Slobodan Milosevic?

The audience attending the talk titled “Power, Justice and War Crimes Trials” sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy chortled as Gary Bass put the question to them. Bass, a Carr Center fellow visiting from Princeton (where he is assistant professor of politics and international affairs), smiled broadly and admitted that he was being glib. But, he asserted, he was also being historically accurate. After all, it was barely 60 years ago that Josef Stalin raised his glass before Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Tehran conference of 1943 and toasted the prospect of executing 50,000 to 100,000 Germans after World War II. (Churchill, repulsed, stormed out of the room. Roosevelt quipped famously – and regrettably – “Marshal Stalin, don’t you think 49,000 would be enough?”)

Today, Bass claimed, war crimes trials are being assailed from left and right. Liberal idealists approach the process cynically. Trials such as Milosevic’s are not about justice, they say, but the grudge one country holds against another. They’re spectacles, propaganda. On the right, self-proclaimed realists decry lengthy court proceedings that allow someone like Milosevic a microphone and a pulpit from which he can stir up the sort of hatred that fueled the atrocities to begin with. Why turn the issue over to smarmy lawyers, they ask? Why not simply shoot Milosevic and be done with it?

While his colleagues often look at war crimes trials and see a show or a threat, though, Bass said that he sees Western society at its most civilized. He spoke with wonder about sitting in the press gallery during Milosevic’s trial, and encouraged members of the Carr Center audience to attend these public proceedings themselves. Bass said that much of the power of the trial was in the lengthy and daily humiliation the former dictator was forced to endure – answering questions not just from “great” men and women, but also from Kosovar Albanian peasants. The trials provide a forum, Bass observed, through which Milosevic is confronted and must submit to precisely the types of people he considers subhuman.

“The sheer humiliation [experienced by Milosevic] counts for a lot,” said Bass.

We try war criminals, Bass contended, because one of the things that distinguishes liberal states from totalitarian states is a commitment to civil rights and to the rule of law. For this reason, Bass reminded the critics, Roosevelt’s War Secretary Henry Stimson suggested that the Nuremberg trials resemble “at least the rudimentary aspects of the (U.S.) Bill of Rights.”

“So, even the Nazis get the benefit of the Bill of Rights,” said Bass.

Furthermore, Bass claimed there is little evidence to suggest that Milosevic’s trial is a “bully pulpit.” Polling data, for instance, shows that the former dictator has been wildly unpopular in his home country throughout his ordeal in The Hague. Bass also took this moment to respond to idealist critics, saying that the trials had “earned their keep” if only because they had removed the Serbian dictator from politics.

Bass cautioned, however, that there are serious drawbacks to the ways in which liberal democracies approach war crimes. Occasionally, he said, tribunals can interfere with peace processes. Bass said that he understood the fervor of human rights advocates, and agreed with them that realists were much too quick to let the perpetrators of genocide go free. But sometimes “you may need to give amnesty to the bad guys to get them out of the way,” he said.

Although liberal states are generally better at handling war crimes than nonliberal states, Bass asserted that these nations could still be “cold-blooded monsters.” He said that liberal states are reluctant to commit their own troops to bringing war criminals to justice, as was the case with the British during much of the Napoleonic wars and after World War I, when they allowed themselves to be blackmailed into releasing the Turkish perpetrators of the Armenian genocide.

Moreover, liberal states are usually only concerned with war crimes when it is their own citizens who have been the victims, Bass said. After the first World War, for instance, Woodrow Wilson was uninterested in addressing the atrocities in Belgium, northern France, and Armenia. He only engaged the question of war crimes in terms of the U-boat warfare that had clamed American lives (and cargo).

Bass admitted that war crimes trials do little to deter future genocides, such as the one in Kosovo. He said that promises of legal action had little effect on genocidal leaders like Milosevic who shrugged off threats of bombing campaigns. But he contended that the real goal of the process should be reconciliation. The prosecution of war crimes is something that the international community can do for the survivors of atrocities in order to avert reprisals and thus stem the cycle of violence. Quoting the title of his recently published book, Bass said that trials like Milosevic’s could “stay the hand of vengeance” and become the basis for regeneration in countries devastated by catastrophic brutality.