STAY THE HAND OF VENGENCE: THE POLITICS OF WAR CRIMES TRIALS by Gary Jonathan Bass. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 402 pp. Cloth $29.95. ISBN: 0-691-04922-X.
Reviewed by Howard Ball, Department of Political Science and University Scholar, University of Vermont.
In November, 2000, in New York City, arch-conservative Republican U. S. Senator Jesse Helms (N. C.) announced plans to introduce legislation in the U. S. Senate barring U. S. cooperation with the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, the U. N.-created International Criminal Court (ICC). Helms' proposed legislation would require U. S. personnel to be "immunized" from the ICC's jurisdiction before the U. S. would agree to participate in any U. N. peacekeeping operation. "This Court will circumscribe the United States' ability to project force to defend not only its [global] interests but humanitarian interests as well," said Helms' spokesperson Mark Thiessen. At the same time, however, representatives from more than 100 nations met at the U. N. headquarters in New York City to continue preparations for establishing the ICC. (The ICC Treaty, created in Rome in 1998, has been signed by more than 100 nations--not including the United States. Sixty nations must ratify the treaty before it can come into force. Twenty three nations had ratified it as of November, 2000 and U. N. Secretary General Kofi Annan believes that there will be the requisite 60 ratifiers by 2002.) Gary Bass's response is that Helm's threat to have the United States boycott the ICC is yet another example of domestic politicians in a powerful democratic nation state acting to frustrate the efforts of others in the international community to create an international mechanism that would provide justice rather than vengeance for innocent victims of war crimes and war criminals. His book, STAY THE HAND OF VENGEANCE, "is mostly interested in the politics that underpins (and often undermines) international law." It chronicles Western nations' efforts to deal with war crimes and war criminals since 1815. The notion of a war crimes tribunal, according to Bass, has been a "fairly regular part of international politics." Also, as he points out, it has been a fairly unsuccessful part of international politics.
His book is, in the main, an examination of the politics associated with the failures (three) and the successes (two) of the international community's efforts to conduct war crimes trials for those charged with violations of the laws of war and humanity. Bass examines the failure of the western world's powerful nations to bring Napoleon to trial in 1815, the Kaiser to trial in 1919, and the Young Turk leaders to trial in 1919. He also examines the somewhat more successful actions of the international community to bring Nazi (and Japanese) leaders before the bar of international justice in Nuremberg in 1946 (and in Tokyo) as well as the convening, in 1993, of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), as well as the 1994 tribunal formed to try war criminals' actions during the civil war in Rwanda. (ICTR)
His essential question is one that forms the core of continuing debates about
Page 634 begins here
international relations. What is the place of "Idealism" in international relations? Why are liberal democratic nations sometimes idealistic in the face of foreign wickedness (genocide, crimes against humanity) and establish ad hoc tribunals to dispense justice, while at other times liberal democracies "cynically abandon all efforts to pursue justice" for victims of horrible war crimes when the fighting stops. Bass's answer is that patterns of politics in democratic societies either prevent or allow the international community to act to provide justice for those victims of war crimes. His book is "a systematic and comparative account of the politics of international war crimes tribunals."
Before he analyzes five case studies of war, war crimes, war criminals, and war crimes tribunals in Western history since 1815 (which takes up the bulk of his book), Bass makes three core arguments why there has been and will continue to be support for war crimes tribunals by liberal democratic societies and their leaders. These national societies "are in the grip of a principled idea," one that cries out for justice -- sometimes.
His first argument is that "liberal decision-makers believe that it is right for war criminals to be put on trial -- a belief that I will call legalism." A second argument is that "even liberal states almost never put their own soldiers at risk in order to bring war criminals to book." Finally, he argues that "even liberal states are more likely to seek justice for war crimes committed against their own citizens, not against innocent civilians." The "common coin," writes Bass, is the "selfishness of states, even liberal ones. We put our own citizens first -- by an amazing degree. The war crimes policy of liberal states is a push-and-pull of idealism and selfishness."
As seen in these observations, Bass's book is really an examination of the conflict between Idealism and Realism in international politics. According to the author, "realists see justice as dangerous to a durable peace, while liberals argue that there is no durable peace without justice." To Bass, just as idealism in international relations is limited, so too is realism. Sometimes, Bass notes in his book, nations pursue justice for victims who are not their own citizens (ICTY, ICTR). Sometimes war crimes tribunals do punish criminals, not enemies. Also, sometimes the domestic political norms of liberal democracies (values such as due process, justice, a fair trial, and "legalism") spill over into the international realm and are slowly and cautiously adopted by the world community. Also, these examples, for Bass, discount the Realists' arguments that it is only amoral security that drives all states in international politics.
Liberal ideals, he argues, make liberal states take up the cause of international justice. Sooner rather than later, the United States will ratify the ICC treaty, to the chagrin of Helms and others. After presenting a lucid portrait of the politics of bringing (or not bringing) Napoleon, the Kaiser, and a host of other war criminals to justice, including examples of how due process and other liberal norms entered the language of international politics and law, Bass ends on an encouraging note. There has emerged in the past fifty years, "the principled belief that war criminals must be put on trial," and that, "there is a legalistic solution to a very complex moral and political problem: The fair trial is the proper way of dispensing justice."
In the end, Bass believes, with the idealists, that there can be no real peace after a war filled with the horrible reality of war
Page 635 begins here
crimes and war criminals without some sort of legal justice. Once-unimagined violence well beyond the norms of war calls for the wrongdoers to be brought before the bar of international justice. Without such justice, there can be no reconciliation or reconstruction. "The story of the politics of war crimes trials is really the story of the constant tension between liberal ideals and cruel self-interest." Though buffeted by the Helms's of the world's liberal democracies, Bass concludes that the power of idealism and legalism in international politics is not dead. STAY THE HAND OF VENGEANCE presents the reader with a clearly stated thesis, one that is validated by a careful examination of the contours of world struggle over the past two centuries. It is a well-written book with an important, humane message about the virtue of justice over vengeance and of the value of legalism over cynical selfishness.
Copyright 2000 by the author, Howard Ball.