War Crimes Then & Now

Nuremberg 1946 – Yugoslavia 1996 – 00-08-1996

Fifty years after the Nuremberg Trials – in a week when more mass graves emerged in former Yugoslavia – we still have no effective method of bringing today's war criminals to justice. Christopher Long thinks The Hague has much to learn from the Nuremberg experience.

Exactly fifty years ago, all eyes were on the city of Nuremberg, in southern Germany, where Britain, France, Russia and the United States had set up their international military tribunal.

Throughout that summer of 1946, in the first of a series of Nuremberg Trials, the principal Nazi leaders sitting in Room 600 of the Nuremberg Courts became familiar figures of growing contempt as the evidence of their monstrous crimes was broadcast worldwide.

Ten were to be hanged and, by 1949, a further 177 men and women had been tried and sentenced. Germany was, implicitly, held responsible for a war which had cost 55 million lives. [Similar tribunals took place in Japan]

Ironically, fifty years were to elapse before the next international war crimes tribunal: the one now sitting in The Hague examining atrocities in former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless one might think there have been enough similar crimes elsewhere in those fifty years to justify many more such trials.

Nuremberg was remarkable. Despite the appalling chaos, destruction and the millions of displaced people throughout Europe immediately after World War 11 – not to mention the growing rift between Russia and the West – the Allies acted efficiently, decisively and cohesively. Within a year of occupying Germany they had presented the Nuremberg court with most of the principal criminals – and the evidence and witnesses necessary to convict them – along with a determination to see the sentences executed.

By contrast, today's proceedings in The Hague look puny, flaccid and indecisive. Five years have elapsed since the first mass atrocities in Eastern Slavonia and four years since the first atrocities in Bosnia-Hercegovina. While a pathetic handful have been indicted, arrested and charged, the vast majority remain free – often still wielding power and living off the profits of extortion or theft. Even the UN/NATO troops who have been in occupation for four years, still refuse to arrest the two chief indicted war criminals, Gen. Mladic and Dr Karadzic.

Nevertheless, The Hague's war crimes 'justice' grinds on, producing its mountains of paperwork while cohorts of lawyers produce ever more arcane reasoning for delaying or dropping proceedings against the handful of accused the world community has seen fit to charge.

By contrast, the Allies in 1946 acted very swiftly. They caught most – though by no means all – of the criminals before they could run and so preempted any attempt to justify the unjustifiable or to re-write history in the interim.

And significantly the proceedings were held in Nuremberg, in the heart of Germany, where the German people would be forced to face the evidence against them. Clear retribution was, after all, the least that many victims and survivors could hope for – a sign that the world had recognised and would not tolerate the wrongs they had suffered.

Today, hundreds of war criminals from former Yugoslavia have had ample time to lose themselves abroad, change their identities, establish alibis, intimidate potential witnesses or expunge the evidence. Serbs, Croats and Muslims are already 'adjusting' history to accommodate, justify or deny the unacceptable horrors of the past five years. Evidence vanishes day by day.

True, some say the Nuremberg Trials were flawed – one argument being that the court represented only the winning powers who then assumed the roles of both prosecutor and judge while denying any right of appeal.

However, such critics seldom suggest who else had the moral right and organisational ability to arrest and convict Nazi war criminals, let alone where any appeal could, reasonably, have been made – as things were at the time. And few have demonstrated that any of the convictions were manifestly wrong.

Yet the International Court in The Hague doesn't even face these dilemmas.

So, if we could get it right then, why can't we do so now?

The answer may be simple: it is often forgotten that the Nuremberg trials were conducted under the auspices of an international military tribunal.

War crimes are, by their nature, military matters – the perpetrators operate, or purport to operate, as part of a military force with military objectives. And anyway, the laws of warfare are remarkably clear-cut by comparison with normal civil and criminal law.

Would the peace-keeping forces in Bosnia be more willing to arrest indicted war criminals if instructed to do so by a military rather than civilian authority? If this is true, we might have to consider establishing a new international body to administer the process.

Finally, there's the vital matter of location. In 1946, there was a psychological coup in choosing Nuremberg rather than, say, Geneva. The trials took place close to Hitler's 'Rally Grounds' which were the birth-place of German fascism and racism. The vast Nazi coliseums, parade grounds and congress halls exist to this day, languishing uselessly as sinister, soulless, granite-grey monuments to defeated menace and megalomania.

But The Hague is 1,000 miles from Sarajevo, Mostar, Srebrenica and the hundreds of tiny villages where unspeakable cruelty took place. At that distance, after interminable legal wrangling and procrastination, its bland conclusions are unlikely to have any impact for the survivors. Worse still, it's far enough away to be conveniently ignored or selectively reported by state-controlled TV, radio and partisan newspapers.

Most war criminals in former Yugoslavia will never know, nor care, what The Hague or the rest of world thinks of their murders, torture, rapes...

The Hague's ineffectual proceedings only justify the worst fears of the surviving victims in the Balkans: that the world simply doesn't care either.

Bosnia's physical scars will heal quite quickly. But reconciliation is going to be very hard to achieve so long as its victims feel they are living with the consequences of injustice and have not seen justice done among them.

We speak of bringing criminals to justice. The lesson of Nuremberg is that, in the case of war crimes trials, we should take justice to the criminals – quickly and decisively, in the presence of their victims and at the scene of their crimes.

Subsequently, in 1998, the author provided evidence and testimony to prosecution investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague regarding individuals and events in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1991-95. This feature has been reproduced several times on newsgroups and websites concerned with the Balkans and Former Yugoslavia. Christopher Long has been a war correspondent in the Balkans throughout the conflicts.

'Like some infernal monster. still venomous in death,
a war can go on killing people for a long time after it's all over.'

Nevil Shute — Requiem For A Wren

© (1996) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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