Selective amnesia in int’l justice, as list of atrocities grows

The East African
July 25 2009

Selective amnesia in international justice, as list of atrocities

By PATRICK GATHARA (email the author)

Posted Monday, July 27 2009 at 00:00

If perpetrators of the post-election violence do eventually find their
way to the Hague and Louis Moreno-Ocampo’s International Criminal
Court, one of the charges they are likely to face is `crimes against

The Rome Statute describes crimes against humanity as `particularly
odious offences in that they constitute a serious attack on human
dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human

It would seem that the nature of these crimes demands that we
collectively stand in defence of our common humanity, affording no
quarter to any who are found guilty. However the sorry history of the
selective application of international law betrays a far lesser degree
of outrage.

The term `laws of humanity’ originates from the 1907 Hague Convention,
which codified the customary law of armed conflict.

The charge of `crimes against humanity’ was first articulated in
reference to the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18.

On May 24, 1915, the Allied Powers, Britain, France, and Russia,
jointly issued a statement explicitly charging for the first time ever
another government of committing `a crime against humanity.’

This joint statement declared: `[i]n view of these new crimes of
Turkey against humanity and civilisation, the Allied Governments
announce publicly to the Sublime Porte that they will hold personally
responsible for these crimes all members of the Ottoman Government, as
well as those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.’

After World War I, the Allies, in connection with the Treaty of
Versailles, established in 1919 a commission to investigate war crimes
that relied on the 1907 Hague Convention as the applicable law.

Despite the commission’s finding that Turkish officials committed
`crimes against the laws of humanity’ for killing Armenian nationals
and residents during the period of the war, the Turks were never
formally prosecuted.

Interestingly, the United States and Japan both strongly opposed the
criminalisation of such conduct on the grounds that crimes against the
laws of humanity were violations of moral and not positive law.

The failure to hold the Turks to account paved the way for the

In 1939, just before the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of
the Second World War, Adolf Hitler told his generals, `The aim of war
is not to reach definite lines but to annihilate the enemy
physically. It is by this means that we shall obtain the vital living
space that we need. Who today still speaks of the Armenians?’