Ideas·CBC Massey Lectures

Bringing 'bad guys' to global justice: Payam Akhavan on prosecuting war criminals

In his second Massey Lecture, Payam Akhavan details just how hard it is to punish war criminals, recalling his time with the UN as a prosecutor at The Hague and on the streets of Sarajevo, among other conflict zones.

'Is it ever possible to achieve justice after genocide?' Akhavan ponders in second lecture

In his second Massey Lecture, Payam Akhavan details just how hard it is to punish war criminals, recalling his time with the UN as a prosecutor at The Hague and on the streets of Sarajevo, among other conflict zones. (CBC)

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?"

"Justice delayed is better than justice denied": Payam Akhavan recounts efforts that led to the arrests of Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic 2:14

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 at a war crimes trial at The Hague. He called the creation of the ICTY a 'historical experiment that revolutionized international law.' (ICTY-TV via Payam Akhavan)

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."

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, second right, and his general Ratko Mladic, first left, walk accompanied by bodyguards on Mount Vlasic frontline in Serbia in 1995. Mladic slammed the UN's Yugoslav war crimes tribunal as a 'satanic court' and refused to testify as a defence witness for his former political master Karadzic. (Sava Radovanovic/Associated Press)

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."
Akhavan started the lecture with this statement, adding that 'inaction in the face of extremism, of greed, hatred and violence, carries grave consequences.' (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)
  • "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."

(Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Payam Akhavan's CBC Massey Lectures will be rebroadcast in August 2018.

The lectures are also published in book form by House of Anansi.


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