Bringing 'bad guys' to global justice: Payam Akhavan on prosecuting war criminals
'Is it ever possible to achieve justice after genocide?' Akhavan ponders in second lecture
CBC Massey Lecture 2: The Pursuit of Global Justice
Payam Akhavan says he went into Sarajevo with the UN hoping to "save the world" and bring "bad guys" to justice.
But he quickly learned how hard it is to punish war criminals.
He left there a very different person, "struggling to save" his own soul. It's a key theme in the second of his CBC Massey Lectures, recorded earlier this year in Vancouver.
"Is it ever possible to achieve justice after genocide?" he asks in the book which accompanies the lecture. "Or is its enormity such that no punishment is enough?"
At least as far back as the American Civil War, people have been trying to figure out some rules for combat. Right through the two world wars, there was discussion on what seemed morally acceptable in international conflict. But by 1995 and the war in Bosnia, the rules seemed to have disappeared.
Akhavan, then a UN prosecutor at The Hague, worked to bring them back.
"The reality was that we had a lofty mandate to enforce humanitarian law but no means for arresting fugitives."
Akhavan recalls seeing Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic in Geneva at one of the meetings of the Yugoslav Peace Conference and feeling angry.
"The sight of these monstrous men being treated as dignitaries was repugnant," he said. "It was obscene, I thought to myself, that a bicycle thief in Geneva was more likely to be punished than a war criminal."
Things changed in 1997, when a mission called Operation Tango tracked down two officials both charged with genocide. Milan Kovacevic was flown to The Hague and put on trial, while Simo Drljaca was killed in firefight with the soldiers.
"The suspected war criminals were no longer laughing at the toothless Hague Tribunal. They understood the language of force very well."
Key moments from Akhavan's second lecture
- "Global justice, however weak and selective in practice, is no longer a utopian fantasy. The emergence of this new conception of international legitimacy stands in sharp contrast to the casual acceptance of atrocities throughout much of history. For too long, the extermination and enslavement of vanquished nations was deemed the natural right of the victor. But in today's world, atrocities are no longer acceptable. The transformation of ritual barbarity into an international crime cannot be taken for granted. It was, and remains, an epic story of defending humanity in the darkness of despair."
"On [Sarajevo's] Selimovic Boulevard, as we peered out the small window in the back of the UN armoured vehicles, the sight of dead bodies had become disturbingly normalized. Many had no choice but to walk through Sniper's Alley in their daily search for food and water. There was an open stretch of the boulevard that was exposed to sniper fire from the surrounding rooftops and hills. Once the pedestrians reached that crossing, they would run as fast as they could, resigned to their possible fate."
All five parts of Payam Akhavan's Massey Lectures air on IDEAS November 6 to 10 at 9 p.m./9:30 NT on Radio One. And you can listen online:
- November 6: Lecture 1 — The Knowledge of Suffering (recorded in Whitehorse)
- November 7: Lecture 2 — In Pursuit of Global Justice (recorded in Vancouver)
- November 8: Lecture 3 — The Will to Intervene (recorded in Montreal)
- November 9: Lecture 4 — The Oneness of Humankind (recorded in St. John's)
- November 10: Lecture 5 — The Spirit of Human Rights (recorded in Toronto)
The lectures are also published in book form by House of Anansi.