[OUTLOOK]How effective are war trials?A worldwide controversy started when the former president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic suddenly died while he was standing trial at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. In Russia, a brother nation of Serbia that shares Slavic origins, and Beograd, where the supporters of Mr. Milosevic still hold great influence, rumors of poisoning have been spreading and people are questioning whether the U.N. tribunal faithfully carried out its duty of protecting the accused.
In contrast, at the United Nations, in the Netherlands and the United States, the public feel disappointed to lose the chance to punish a war criminal under the law. They also complain that despite having spent an enormous budget of over $1 billion, the authorities essentially broadcast the sophistry of war criminals and fail to convict those who are virtually on the run. There, instead of rumors of poisoning, debate over the efficiency of the tribunal has been fueled.
How can international society effectively punish the criminals responsible for wars and other anti-humanitarian offenses? In fact, the history of war crimes trials is not very long. The first of their kind were the Nuremberg Trials and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, held after World War II to punish the war criminals of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Through these tribunals, international society displayed the will to punish war crimes under international law by sentencing Class A criminals such as Hermann Goering and Hideki Tojo to death. However, the criminals did not acknowledge their guilt till the end and disregarded the tribunals as a “trial of the winners.”
Aside from the resistance of the war criminals, many realist political scientists are skeptical of the effect of punishing war crimes. Such opinions have prevailed from ancient times till post-World War I times. The most notable case was the shunning of opinions wanting to punish Wilhelm II, the German emperor at the time of World War I, as a war criminal.
Realists such as E.H. Carr, Otto von Bismarck and Henry Kissinger thought that war tribunals did not help post-war international order and stabilization. Instead of encouraging an enemy to surrender, trials would make a war more brutal. The opponents argued that punishing the enemy is a part of war but establishing a new postwar order is a task of politics.
Another counterproductive feature of a war tribunal is that the international judicial system against anti-humanitarian crimes is highly likely to be politically distorted according to the power dynamics of the superpowers. In resistance to political distortions, international human rights groups claim that what the United States and France did during the Iraq war and the independence wars of Algeria and Vietnam, and what Indonesia and Israel did in East Timor and Palestine, are not free of anti-humanitarian crimes.
Moreover, the fairness of the arrest and trial procedure is also problematic. Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian leader who ordered the ethnic cleansing of Croats and Bosnians, and the Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for the Killing Fields have not been convicted, and the criminals who carried out the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda have not yet been arrested. Therefore, the public is criticizing the “dilatory justice” of the tribunal, despite having a colossal budget, and is skeptical of the actual effect of war criminal trials.
However, the spirit of the 20th century is to punish anti-humanitarian crimes without prescription. In the 21st century, some argue that safeguarding human rights should be prioritized over respecting sovereignty.
The adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998 was a realistic response to the demands of the time. The statute was an attempt to establish a permanent international court to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the International Criminal Court has been ratified by no more than 60 nations and has not been launched yet. More than anything, the United States, where realist tradition is strong, stands firm in saying that it will not acknowledge the jurisdiction of the ICC on U.S. citizens or U.S. forces.
The international responsibility to save human rights is growing in the 21st century, but there still is a wide chasm between public opinion, the reality and the effect of the punishment of war criminals.
* The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Seok-hwan