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Never Again (Maybe)

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The elderly gentleman had a remarkable history. He'd worked in the State Department in Latin America and Afghanistan. And, 60 years ago, he served as a translator in Tokyo in connection with the war crimes trial that resulted in 25 guilty verdicts and seven executions of Japanese war criminals just after World War II. Given his background, I was surprised at his viewpoint.

The rules from the Tokyo Trials about military aggression and crimes against peace will only be applied to small countries," Cecil Uyehara told me at a recent conference. "When Mai Lai occurred in Vietnam, nothing happened. We didn't apply this justice in Iraq, at Abu Ghraib either." Indeed, one of the U.S. lawyers defending the Japanese accused of war crimes in 1948 tried to argue that, because of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States was as guilty as Japan in terms of killing civilians during wartime. This legal gambit failed. "Truman was not tried as a war criminal," historian Alexis Dudden writes in her book Troubled Apologies, "and nuclear weapons came to generate their own de facto legitimacy, standing today as the international community's legal weapon of mass destruction."

Today, the rival interpretations of the Tokyo trials — the judgment of civilization or simply justice meted out by the victors — continue to bedevil the international community.

Consider the tribunal currently addressing the Cambodian genocide. Although it's been 30 years since the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge period, only last month did the first member of the Pol Pot regime go on trial.

Comrade Duch, who presided over the interrogation, torture, and execution of 14,000 people at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, isn't disputing his role in the murderous insanity. But the trial won't likely go beyond five key figures since the current government isn't enthusiastic about charging former Khmer Rouge officials who now serve within it. "Nor will there be an examination of the actions of other countries in the long Cambodian affliction — the American bombing campaign between 1969 and 1973, for example, that claimed anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 lives," writes Richard Bernstein in the New York Review of Books.

So, as a human rights supporter, do you endorse the Cambodia tribunal (or the Tokyo tribunal or the ones for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia) as a partial measure of justice or do you withhold support because the whole set up is hopelessly flawed?

This argument concerning selective focus extends to the debate over the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the new UN doctrine that argues for multilateral action if a state fails to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity. This week at Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), we offer you three distinct takes on R2P from several FPIF contributors.

In his brief in favor of R2P, Shaun Randol makes an impassioned plea in favor of the judgment of civilization. "Sixty years ago, the world cried 'never again' when the UN passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide," he writes in R2P: No Love in a Time of Cholera. "Since then, however, the international community failed to intervene in Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Sudan to prevent genocide. If states fail to implement R2P in today's life-or-death situations, tomorrow's entreaty may be, 'Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Haiti, Zimbabwe, DRC, Burma, Uganda, Gaza — never again!' Millions hope otherwise."

Bridget Moix and Trevor Keck also endorse the doctrine but emphasize its preventive and multilateral character. "Given the strong focus on prevention and a response tailored to each occasion — rather than jumping to military intervention — R2P is a step forward for the international system," they write in R2P: Focus on Prevention. "The Obama administration should endorse this doctrine, increase capacity-building assistance to states facing crises or under stress, and strengthen alliances to manage conflicts peacefully before they reach the point of potential mass violence. If prevention fails, the response — whether non-military or military — to an emerging genocide should be collective and authorized by the UN Security Council."

Meanwhile, Steven Fake and Kevin Funk echo the criticism of the Tokyo trials as victors' justice. R2P, they argue, is just another method by which large states exert their will over small states. In all the discussions around the new doctrine, they write in R2P: Disciplining the Mice, Freeing the Lions, "no one asked whether killing 1,300 mostly civilians in the Gaza Strip was Israel's failure in its responsibility to protect Palestinians. [S]hould honest activists be calling for a 'humanitarian intervention' to halt Israeli crimes, and further, to target the individuals and institutions who make them possible? That Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power and other high-octane R2P advocates have not pursued such objectives tells us virtually all we need to know about the doctrine."

Our contributors continue their debate in Strategic Dialogue: Responsibility to Protect where they address the flaws, virtues, and practical consequences of a doctrine that aspires to update for the 21st century principles articulated 60 years ago. If you want to know my views on the matter, stay tuned this week at FPIF for our next strategic dialogue on the trial of Slobodan Milosevic and why Yugoslavia still matters. In general, I prefer to look beyond either-or. As challenging as it might be, we must say "never again" to those who commit mass atrocities on the ground and by air, within borders and across borders, and on the winning side as well as the losing one. Let a thousand tribunals bloom.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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