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Jeremy Colwill

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From Nuremberg to Bosnia: War Crimes Trials in the Modern Era

Jeremy Colwill discusses the Hague Intemational Tribunal that was established by the U.N. in 1993 to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in the former Yugoslavia. To date, investigations have resulted in the leveling of charges against 22 ethnic Serbs. According to the author, the Hague tribunal is important not only for its capacity to bring about a peaceful resolution of events in the former Yugoslavia, but also in terms of a growing perception that its success or failure will determine the fate of the still unrealized project of establishing a permanent international criminal court. Expectations also run high for the Hague tribunal since it could put an end to unenviable record of non-enforcement of the convention prohibiting genocide. Successful prosecution now could act as a significant deterrent to future atrocities. The growing determination to punish atrocities of war as in some sense illegal or criminal requires a rule-based institutional foundation, one that could not be construed as simple revenge on the part of the victors. For that reason, the author reviews the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals to establish some central criteria of legitimacy in terms of war crimes trials and to help assure that future trials will be perceived not as a political device, but as a considered legal proceeding in which due process principles and the ideals ofjustice predomi nate. Neither the Nuremberg nor the Tokyo tribunal had any basis in the then-applicable framework of international law. One international judge at Tokyo has suggested that the tribunal might have been perceived as an act of revenge for the national humiliation inflicted by the attack on Pearl Harbor or even as the means by which Japanese savagery and barbarity could be publicly demonstrated, thus fulfilling the need to justify use of atomic weapons at by the U.S. at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. International treaties are the source of international law and the only means of securing binding force for decisions relating to war crimes and procedures for dealing with violations of humanitarian law. Neither the Nuremberg, Tokyo, nor Hague tribunals take that route, which would have guaranteed optimum legitimacy. With the latter, the U.N. General Secretary instead attempted to expedite the process by establishing it as part of the Security Council’s powers to take measures necessary to restore international peace and security. Learning the lessons of Nuremberg and Tokyo, even 50 years after the event, now urgently requires a huge act of political will if war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are at last to be seriously addressed in the post-Cold War period.

war crimes; nuremburg trials; bosnia-herzogovina; international law; yugoslavia; serbia; genocide; world war two

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 22, No. 3 (1995): 111-128

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