Mark Lewis. The Birth of the New Justice: The Internationalization of Crime and Punishment, 1919-1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 368 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-966028-5.
Reviewed by Robert Whitaker (Tarrant County College)
Published on H-Decol (May, 2015)
Commissioned by Christopher R. Dietrich (Fordham University)
Mark Lewis’s The Birth of the New Justice is a welcome addition to the emerging scholarship on the history of international law in the twentieth century. The book focuses on the attempts made by European jurists and legal organizations to encourage the international prosecution of war crimes, transnational crime, and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century. The author argues that although this work is typically seen as the result of liberal, humanitarian state-based movements, the “new justice” pursued by international legal organizations relied on a multitude of differing motivations and ideologies—many of them conservative and illiberal in nature. Furthermore, the work of these organizations often did not reflect the causes or concerns of sovereign states.
Lewis’s work begins with a review of developments in the international legal system prior to the First World War, and follows with a discussion of the birth of the “new justice” at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The author contends that the Paris Peace Conference led to the development of a “central set” of legal concepts that became the “new justice” (p. 3). These concepts included individual liability for the violation of international law, the potential prosecution of a head of state or military officer for an international violation, the diplomatic ostracizing of states that failed to extradite perpetrators, the legitimization of international tribunals, and the alteration of international law based on social or political demands. The remainder of the book follows how these concepts were adopted and transformed by a variety of international bodies and organizations from 1919 to 1950. Lewis not only reveals how the League of Nations and United Nations (UN) influenced these concepts but also considers the important contributions made by smaller groups to this process. These groups include the International Law Association, Association Internationale de Droit Pénal (International Association of Penal Law), the World Jewish Congress, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The author’s command of the subject is evident throughout, but Lewis’s history is at its strongest when it considers the work of these smaller international organizations and the individual legalists that supported them. These smaller groups were key to the development of the “new justice” because they tended to push for the prosecution of international violations even if they were committed by sovereign states or a head of state. Of particular interest was the work of Belgian jurist Baron Edouard Descamps, who sat on the League of Nations Advisory Committee of Jurists, and Romanian diplomat Vespasien Pella, who worked with the Association Internationale de Droit Pénal. Both Decamps and Pella pushed for the development of an international criminal court during the 1920s that could prosecute “crimes against the international order” as well as cases of transnational crime (p. 79). These efforts failed to gain support, despite the recent atrocities committed during the First World War, because of their potential to threaten the sovereignty of the Great Powers. States were only interested in international cooperation on legal matters so long as it helped them capture their own criminals, and did not threaten the freedom of their political or military officers. In addition, many worried about the potential misuse of these international courts to pursue political objectives, such as the criminalization of communism and socialism.
Lewis follows the work of jurist organizations throughout these debates carefully, explaining their motivations and achievements (or lack thereof) in detail. In this way the book functions not only as a valuable study of international law but also as a useful set of case studies on the operation and work of international organizations in the past.
While Lewis’s approach to his chosen organizations is generally faultless, there are a couple points of concern. As Lewis admits, few of the organizations and individuals he studies tended to be very successful in their endeavors. The reader discovers with each of the book’s case studies that much of the careful thinking and planning by these individuals and groups met with significant political opposition, particularly from Great Power nations such as Britain and France. This fact makes it difficult to accept his argument that international justice was largely conceived and theorized by individuals and independent organizations rather than nation-states and traditional diplomatic corps. It is true that the work of independent organizations could be more successful when using a more populist approach—as was the case with Raphael Lemkin’s work toward the Genocide Convention—but “the final decisions always lay in the hands of governments” (p. 294).
Additionally, Lewis’s focus on jurist organizations as well as established bodies like the League of Nations and the UN ignores the more successful measures in international justice developed by international police organizations at this time. While legalist organizations may have struggled with the intransigence of traditional diplomacy, such international police organizations as the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime largely avoided official diplomacy in order to establish effective networks of justice between various national police forces. Though Lewis makes occasional reference to these efforts, the lack of thorough engagement with these developments hinders the book’s claim to provide a history of the internationalization of crime and punishment.
These issues aside, readers will find much use for Lewis’s work, particularly if they are concerned with the history of the League of Nations, international organizations, or international law. This book adds to our understanding of how conservative ideologies and impulses, such as Pella’s anti-communism, influenced the development of internationalism during the interwar period. Scholars of decolonization will also enjoy reading about how Europeans attempted to prosecute war atrocities amid the collapse of empires after the First World War, and then did the same during the bifurcation of international politics following the Second World War. Finally, the book will encourage new scholarship on the roles played by non-European individuals and organizations on this process.
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Robert Whitaker. Review of Lewis, Mark, The Birth of the New Justice: The Internationalization of Crime and Punishment, 1919-1950.
H-Decol, H-Net Reviews.
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