To the victor goes the spoils and the trials


Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army chief, during his initial appearance at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AFP/Getty

There may have been other cases and some famous ones, like the time Louis King of France fell under the knife;  but the first “war crimes” trials I remember were post-World War II; German and Japanese commanders and leaders were tried for the crimes committed by troops they directed and commanded.  During those jaded years of youthful rebellion – for me that was the 1960s – those trial became instruments of political power in my mind, a position for the most part they still occupy.  In my bohemian years war trials caught my attention, possibly because the world’s most famous philosopher, Bertrand Russel, lent his name and prestige to another set of war trials; held in Sweden the mock court sought to try the western government, primarily the American leaders for their Vietnam war crimes; the firebombings of Dresden and other German cities and the atomic bombings of Japan were not forgotten either.   The Swedish War Trials were not taken seriously by anyone but the participants and anti-Vietnam activists (I was neither, in fact I supported American policy in Southeast Asia).

However, those trails caused me to rethink war crimes and war crime trials in general.   I began to think then, but as I had not before, that those trials are the privilege of the winners – losers simply lose and go quietly to the executioner.   It was the fate of the members of the Japanese and German high-command, it was the fate of Saddam Husein and this week it was the fate of Ben Ali, former president of Tunisia – he got 15 years, but not death. It may be the fate of Hosni Mubarak and his sons, but the trials have not started.

We don’t know yet what will happen to Mubarak and his sons in Egypt, but they will very likely face a court as other members of Mubarak government are currently doing; Egypt surprised a few this week when it convicted one former minister of corruption, but for the first time acquitted three others.  Not guilty is not really an option, the vindictive victors are bent on conviction and punishment – revenge. Although there are the nearly neutral UN sponsored trials, they very much resemble trials by the victors.  Hoping for a chance at Gaddafi, the UN issued a warrant for his arrest, hoping that someone else would arrest him.  It is obvious that Gaddafi is guilty of many crimes against the citizens of Libya, but it is not obvious that he is more guilty than other kings, dictators and presidents in Africa, the Middle East or Asia.

In the Hague, a UN trial of a former commander of the Bosnian Serb armed forces is beginning – he is misbehaving and was removed from the courtroom.  Refusing to cooperate may prolong his fate, but it is not likely to alter his fate; the evidence is overwhelming, or at least the intent of the court is overwhelming.  In a related court, a court in the Netherlands convicted forces of its government with complicity in the same massacres for which Mladic is being tried – the killing of 8000 Muslim Serbs – the Dutch peace keepers forced three Muslims into the arms of Mladic’s forces and death.  The Dutch court decision is the only one of the current trials that is not a trial of the losers by the victors and maybe should not even be included, except the decision will be evidence in the other trial.

By calling the trials “victors trials” I am not saying the losers are not guilty, nor am I saying the victors in their place were guilty of any like crimes – I am only saying these are political trials where the winners get to put the losers on trial. Too often we seek to punish when we might focus on doing right ourselves.  We did not come out of World War II morally superior, we were militarily superior and therefore had the power to try the losers. To be morally superior it is necessary to act in a superior manner, in making war and in making social policy.  At the end of World War II, we were a segregated nation and we dropped the atomic bomb – the only times it was ever dropped; we had much to correct in our own policies; even today over 60 years later the threat of nuclear war still hangs over the planet.

I think the same about the Egyptian, Tunisian and the Iraqi courts – put your house in order, create a society that is far, just and free and then there will not be the kind society that allows such individuals to arise – hate, cruelty and greed are the crimes – the names of the criminals in most cases are incidental.  But passing just laws and eliminating officially tolerated hate and bigotry are not nearly as satisfying as hanging bad guys are they?  For the most part these are Mediterranean issues; but beware!  Hate and racism are starting to sneak back into our own political debate under the guise of budget debates using euphemisms like entitlement, elitism and illegal immigration.


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