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« Calling All Americans to Confess | Main | C. S. Lewis and ’Facing the Giants’ »

July 31, 2008

Belfast to Bosnia

Who will bend this ancient hatred, will the killing to an end
Who will swallow long injustice, take the devil for a country man?

In the Post's Outlook section, Dejan Anastasijevic, discussing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, wrote,

Countries emerging from conflict need swift justice, not decades of tedious trials aimed at establishing comprehensive historical truth. That task should be left to historians. Instead of casting a wide net and spending years examining every single fish, future tribunals should focus on the worst cases with the strongest evidence -- and process them quickly, before politics steps in. And if this raises some eyebrows among legal experts, so be it. Human justice is imperfect, but no justice is much worse.

I'll defer to his judgment about both the International Criminal Tribunal and what happened or didn't happen in the former Yugoslavia. But I'm increasingly convinced that you can either have Truth and Reconciliation or you can have justice but you can't have both. What's more, if you try to have both, you'll almost certainly wind up with neither.

Think about the many victims of what Niall Ferguson called The War of the World. How many of them received any measure of justice? The only obvious examples are the war crime trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II. These measures of justice were only possible because the perpetrating regimes had been crushed and their countries were occupied. The victors were able to impose whatever terms they wanted on their prostrate enemies. In other words: victor's justice.

None of the perpetrators of subsequent horrors were defeated in a similar fashion: the Khmer Rouge retreated into the Cambodian jungle and waged a guerrilla war; the Hutu genocidaires, for the most part, went to Zaire/Congo where they made life even more miserable for that most unfortunate of nations. Does anyone doubt that the same will be true of Omar al-Bashir?

What makes the "swift justice" Anastasijevic writes about possible isn't lofty ideals or even commitment to those lofty ideals -- it's the proverbial "boots on the ground" (and on the throat) that can impose these lofty ideals on the vanquished perpetrators.

You don't have to be terminally cynical or even a cynic at all to think that there's little will -- assuming there's a legal warrant in the first place -- to put those boots on the ground. 

Send no weapons no more money. Send no vengeance across the seas
Just the blessing of forgiveness for my new countryman and me

So if justice is unlikely, that leaves Truth and Reconciliation. I'm using capital letters in honor of the extraordinary process that took place between 1996 and 1998 in South Africa. The New Republic once editorialized that the extraordinary forbearance and nonviolence of black South Africans was the product of their Christian beliefs. So was the way they chose to deal with the past.

(So is the similar, albeit less formal and institutional, process in Rwanda that has been documented by our own Catherine Larson.)

Reading Anastasijevic's piece made me marvel at the (unappreciated) miracle in South Africa. It could have gone differently -- just look at neighboring Zimbabwe. But it didn't, in large part because people realized that while justice is elusive -- if not illusory -- forgiveness is as close as you want it to be.

Missing brothers, martyred fellows, silent children in the ground
Could we but hear them could they not tell us
"Time to lay God's rifle down"

Who will say "this far no further," oh Lord, if I die today.

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