Gary Jonathan Bass. Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 424 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-04922-9; $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-691-09278-2.
Reviewed by Arne Kislenko (Department of History, Ryerson University)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2004)
In his opening statement at the Nuremburg war crimes trials in November 1945, American Justice Robert Jackson cautioned the Allied powers to "stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law." It would, Jackson said, be "one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason." Gary Bass has not only taken Jackson's phrase for the title of his book, he has also very clearly considered Jackson's meaning. Stay the Hand of Vengeance is an important and timely study. It examines war crimes from a variety of perspectives, most notably the political contexts--both national and international--in which they are held. Beyond this, however, the book also tackles the theoretical, legal, and even philosophical dimensions of war crimes prosecutions. Despite such enormous and daunting ambitions, Bass's book is masterful.
An assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, Bass's own background has clearly helped shape the reach and depth of the book. He covered war crimes in the former Yugoslavia as a correspondent for the Economist, and worked in other capacities as a journalist before making the jump to academia. He brought with him not only this useful insight, but also an engaging writing style which should appeal to readers beyond the confines of hallowed university halls. This is no small accomplishment. Given the rather obvious seriousness of the topic, and the density of law, studies of war crimes are not easily digested. Bass, however, manages a deft overview of war crimes tribunals from the Napoleonic wars through the former Yugoslavia. The chapters on proceedings at Nuremburg and The Hague are particularly useful, as is his brief but powerful afterword. Together, the chapters unravel, in compelling fashion, the myriad complexities of international law and the politics that accompany it.
Rather than examine every war crimes trial in specific detail, Bass has opted for a case-studies approach. He looks at victor's justice towards Napoleon, the debacle of post-World War I trials at Leipzig and Constantinople, the Allied war crimes tribunals at Nuremberg, and, most recently, proceedings at The Hague against members of Slobodan Milosevic's regime. The integrating element in all scenarios for Bass is the sense of legalism, which he defines as "fixation on a process, a sense that international trials must be conducted roughly according to well-established domestic practice--not just rule-following, but rule-following when it comes to war criminals" (p. 20). Bass very clearly defends the principle against the realist and neo-realist argument that war crimes tribunals are nothing more than "victor's justice." He acknowledges that totalitarian states have used trials for political theater and that even liberal states have occasionally seen them as a kind of sanctioned revenge. However, he contends that for the most part war crimes proceedings by liberal states are motivated by the power of legal convictions, largely stemming from domestic norms. The accused are seen not just as defeated foes, but also as criminals deserving punishment.
Yet Bass's defense of liberalism is not idealistic. He notes that liberalism faces serious constraints when it comes to the principles of war crimes tribunals. First and foremost is the desire of liberal states to protect their own actions. Blanket support for all the dynamics of an international legal construct could imperil one's own leaders or soldiers--a consideration some believe is behind the spring 2002 decision of the Bush administration to withdraw the United States from support of the new International Criminal Court. Bass also concedes that, in liberal states, support for war crimes tribunals is self-serving. Most nations act only or more readily when their own citizens have been violated, and when public opinion is sufficiently inflamed. Another complication is a simple but powerful impulse for revenge. For example, Bass points out that Winston Churchill was not alone in initially agreeing with Josef Stalin that officials of the Nazi regime should be summarily executed. However, Bass argues throughout that, notwithstanding these challenges, support for war crimes trials is a victory for liberalism and a growing sense of internationalism. Although imperfect, such proceedings are far better than the alternative: apathy towards war crimes, and in effect an acceptance of them.
The real strength of Bass's scholarship is his research. In addition to a wide array of secondary sources, he has mined the archives of Britain, France, and the United States. He has conducted interviews with a number of legal and academic experts. There is also careful consideration of media coverage and corresponding international public opinion. Despite his discussion of liberalism and its detractors, the theoretical dimensions of the book are understated--an important consideration in trying to reach an audience beyond political scientists.
The obvious criticisms of Bass's work lay in the case-study approach he has chosen, the end result of which is a general overview--rather than an exhaustive analysis--of carefully selected incidences. Although addressing the limitations of liberal states, he does not fully examine the hypocrisy or ambivalence they often demonstrate towards war crimes trials in some countries. Two good examples are Rwanda or Cambodia. Bass does deal with the former, but only in passing. Surprisingly, the latter receives virtually no attention at all. In this respect, Bass's contention that the book is a "systematic and comparative account of the politics of international war crime tribunals" falls somewhat short (p. 6). One wonders how trials in these two countries have been affected by, for example, the politics behind France's role in training some of those responsible for war crimes in Rwanda, or the indirect support that the United States provided for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Still, on the whole, Stay the Hand of Vengeance offers much to the study of international politics, law, and the history of war crimes tribunals. It simultaneously serves well as good scholarship and a compelling read. Perhaps most significantly, it may also serve as a cautionary tale for those inclined to turn away in the face of future horrors, or those who make no distinction between justice and vengeance.
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Arne Kislenko. Review of Bass, Gary Jonathan, Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals.
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