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May 2003

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Justice Begins at Home: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals
Review by Scott L. Silliman
Stay the Hand of Vengeance : The Politics of War Crimes TribunalsStay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. By Gary Jonathan Bass. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. 402. $45 cloth.)

"Bass finds that whenever illiberal states have been in conflict, there have been no resulting tribunals for the punishment of war crimes….When liberal states have themselves been directly affected by war crimes…, then that support is strong. . . but when they are more distant from atrocities… the support tends to be cautious and conditional."

Gary Jonathan Bass is an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University who formerly worked as a Washington reporter and West Coast correspondent for The Economist where he wrote extensively on the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In this exhaustively researched book, Professor Bass explores why some governments support international war crimes tribunals while others do not. He also examines—from a historical perspective—whether such tribunals have achieved their purpose. Bass concludes that while Nuremberg clearly fulfilled its purpose, almost all other courts have failed or achieved only marginal success. One of his fundamental premises is that every international war crimes tribunal he has studied, from Leipzig to the ad hoc tribunals at the Hague for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, has been predicated upon the firm support of liberal states. In contrast, Bass finds that whenever illiberal states have been in conflict, there have been no resulting tribunals for the punishment of war crimes. Further, when liberal states have themselves been directly affected by war crimes; when their own citizens have been killed or brutalized, then that support is strong and intense; but when they are more distant from atrocities, as in the case of the massive genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the support tends to be cautious and conditional. Bass argues that there is a constant tension in liberal states between ideals and fundamental self interests, most importantly with respect to the protection of a state's own soldiers who might be put at risk in apprehending those accused of war crimes. Finally, the author paints an extremely accurate picture of how the ideals of liberal states tend to result in a legalistic approach to the punishment of war criminals, one that often complicates international diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

Bass' forte' is certainly the thoroughness of his research—unearthing and analyzing thousands of letters and other historical documents reflecting the views of individual states and their leaders with regard to examples of past war crimes tribunals. The completeness of his research bolsters the credibility of his conclusions, and Bass' precise and orderly style of writing allows the reader to move smoothly from one chapter to another as the author progressively gives greater definition and support to his arguments. It is uniquely a work for scholars and casual readers alike.

If there is anything lacking in this book, however, it is perhaps that Bass wrote it prematurely, i.e., two years before the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on July 1st of this year. This new international tribunal is distinct from all others in that it is a permanent-sitting criminal court which claims jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, with a provision extending its jurisdiction to cover crimes of aggression once that crime is defined. The ICC also claims jurisdiction over the nationals of states that are parties to the treaty, as well as those that are not. Of greatest interest, there is a definite split among liberal states with regard to the ICC, with the United States refusing to support it in any capacity, while most of our staunchest allies—perplexed at Washington's opposition—have become its fiercest defenders. The question remains whether the alignment of states for and against this new international tribunal, and their reasons therefore, would be consistent with Bass' conclusions drawn from his historical analysis of previous attempts to bring war criminals to justice. Perhaps a sequel may be in the offing. Nonetheless, this book is one that should be read by all interested in the pursuit of justice for war criminals.


Scott L. Silliman, a former U. S. Air Force judge advocate, is professor of the practice of law at Duke Law School and serves as executive director of Duke’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. During the Persian Gulf War (1990-91), he served as the senior uniformed attorney for the Tactical Air Command.

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