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Are War Crimes Trials Worthwhile?

Do international tribunals and war crime trials deter people from committing war crimes?

Probably not, says an editorial in Bloomberg Businessweek.   High profile war crime and genocide trials don’t seem to have deterred the Libyan, Syrian, Yemeni and Bahraini governments from some pretty dicey steps — and extremely brutal wars continue to grind on across Africa and in the Middle East.  War crimes trials are for losers; if the war crime works, you will never go to jail.

Even so, some crimes must be punished, and if you cannot catch all the criminals you should punish the ones you can.  Justice, not deterrence, is what this is really about — and justice should be served.

That said, every legal system needs a pardoning power.  Not every prosecution makes sense.  One problem in dealing with the Assads and their like is that offering a conditional pardon may sometimes be a way of getting the tyrants out while saving innocent lives — but that is hard to do with the system we have.

We need a pardoning power in the war crimes judicial system — but it won’t be easy to get agreement on what that should look like or how it will work.

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  • Damir Marusic

    Worse than their abysmal failure as deterrents, war crimes trials often hopelessly complicate the political situations on the ground when all the fighting has stopped. The “bad men” of history are rarely singular cancers on their society. Often they are but the most visible symptoms of racial, ethnic or ideological divisions, and punishing them in an ostentatious manner without taking heed of the local context can hinder reconciliation rather than bringing some kind of closure.

    This has, contra the above-linked editorial, very much been a problem in the Balkans. Whatever normalization has happened really cannot be credited to what has gone on in the Hague.

  • Luke Lea

    Idi Amin.

  • Mrs. Davis

    We have war crimes trials, the enemy has show trials. Same difference.

  • Toni

    Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Pinochet, Peron…

    These tyrants ceased oppressing their citizens when they went into exile. Would they ever have left if they knew Spain or some other justice-seeking country would try to imprison and punish them? Or would they have fought to the bloody end?

    Justice is ideal. But in some cases, it can be the enemy of the good.

  • Corlyss

    No. They are just transparent grandstanding and moral preening. Churchill was right: stand the bad guys up against a wall and shoot ’em. The moral preening merely lays traps for the unwary.

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