Where it all began

I have just returned from three weeks’ holiday in Japan, hence the inactiveness of this blog.

The visit was mainly rest and relaxation, but I put aside one day to kick off research that for a book about international justice that I plan to write.

I spent a day interviewing people in Tokyo about the war crimes trials that took place shortly after the second world war.

One interview in particular stands out for the raw emotion that I felt whilst conducting it.

The interview was with the grandson of one of those who were indicted for war crimes after the second world war. Not only that, but this particular indictee, as foreign minister, had signed the declaration that authorised the attack on Pearl Harbour which ultimately brought the US into the war.

I had studied all of this in history, of course, but that was text book stuff. This really brought history home, with surprising force. Here was a real person who suffered through these real events, and it took me away from the dusty tombs of A-level history to a world of real people and real feelings.

“For my parents, the Tokyo trials were a matter of life and death,” this interviewee said – since most of the indictees were getting the gallows.

When his grandfather was sentenced to imprisonment instead, his mother got up and said, “we won”.

Besides this fabulously illuminating interview, what came across during my time in Tokyo was how politically-motivated the trials had been.

Few seemed to deny that they were simply “victor’s justice”, with no suggestion that the other side should also be held to account for their crimes.

Moreover, the Tokyo trials were very much shaped by the politics of the time. One university professor said it was very important to look at what the trials (heavily backed by the US) sought to achieve – and that was speedy demilitarisation of Japan. This explains why the emperor, who should have at least been questioned even if he was never indicted, was never touched.

The concept of international justice seems to have changed little, then.

The whole raison d’etre of the ICC is to bring lasting peace to regions afflicted by war, and to put an end to human rights abuses.

Which means that politics necessarily goes hand-in-hand with justice, undermining the purist’s view that the ICC should just be about justice.

That was never the idea, and it can’t work.

The UN’s Security Council (political) makes the referral to the ICC (judicial), and it is then up to the ICC to start an investigation (or not, as the case may be). The two bodies are theoretically separate, but one could argue that they shouldn’t be. There should at least be some formal recognition of the ICC’s political intent.

Look at the mess left by trying to indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on a purely judicial basis. Now had one said, yes, we should indict Bashir, but there may be reasons for not indicting him, things may have worked somewhat smoother.


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