The banality of good in UN tribunals
THIS HAS been a busy time for international justice. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy and is also investigating post-election violence in Ivory Coast. In late May, Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, was finally arrested in Serbia and charged with crimes against humanity and genocide.
This is also the 50th anniversary of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Given the growing role of international courts, a look at the trial underscores the broad practice of judging crimes against humanity as part of conflict resolution.
The Eichmann trial lasted just eight months, and the opening speech of the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, was, and possibly remains, a high point of legal oratory: simple, direct, and powerful. From the start, he made it clear that he spoke for the 6 million dead: “Their blood cries out, but their voice is stilled. Therefore will I be their spokesman. In their name will I unfold this terrible indictment.’’ And he did.
The visual impact of the trial was almost immediate, with Eichmann, the bespectacled middle-age man in a suit, his face often framed by heavy headphones through which he listened to the interpretation, encased in a glass booth.
The trial remains iconic in seeking international justice, due in large part to timing, speech, and visual impact. In these ways, the trial gripped an audience, explained the event, and imprinted its meaning: justice was seen and understood to be done in a clear and steady manner - relevant both to the victims and many millions of onlookers.
Unfortunately, none of these attributes are found in more recent attempts at prosecuting crimes against humanity. The Balkan wars of the 1990s and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda wrought the creation of special criminal tribunals, as did the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cambodia. Some of the courts are in The Hague, others are in or near the countries. They were all created at the behest of the UN Security Council, and operated by the United Nations - as opposed to the International Criminal Court, which is an independent permanent body.
There is a constant if minor drip of developments from the tribunals, as they incrementally grind through the process of justice. This is especially true of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in which the average trial lasts two years from start to finish.
There may have been some good speeches in the UN tribunals, but few have heard them: the common language is usually English, which is not that of the victims in any of the conflicts. Meanwhile, the most relevant audience is far away, at best watching proceedings through satellite - and what they see is hardly edifying: if Eichmann was defined as the accused in his glass booth, in the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, it is the whole court that is behind glass, with the audience present on the other side, cut off from the proceedings.
Behind the glass, the defendants sit on the one side with their counsel, and the prosecution sits on the other. Between them are the judges and witnesses, with everyone sporting earphones, looking at computer screens, slowly interacting in their strange fish bowl. To the outside world, justice is neither seen nor heard to be done.
Hannah Arendt described the Eichman trial as “the banality of evil’’: that Eichmann was a drab little man working in a vast machine, doing his daily job of masterminding the architecture of genocide efficiently and according to orders. To her mind, this was a technocrat lacking judgment rather than a man infused with hatred.
Although Arendt’s perspective has since been challenged, with scholars claiming Eichmann was far more involved in organizing the Nazi death machine, her phrase remains iconic. And in a strange way its total inversion, the banality of good, may be the best way to summarize the ongoing UN tribunals: full of well-meaning, highly professional officials from all over the world, doing their meticulous job. Scanning in documents, translating them into six languages, protecting victims, interviewing officials - all according to process and procedure. It is a massively detailed and orderly project of justice. That it is not seen or heard or understood, that the victims cannot identify with it, is irrelevant. The machinery grinds on.
The arrest of Ratko Mladic offers a chance to retool the machinery: to make it work for the victims and the greater good. To that end, his trial must start and end in a timely manner; it must be clear and succinct; and it must encapsulate the horrors of the events. There is no more time for the banality of good.
Ilana Bet-El, a historian and writer, is co-author of the forthcoming “The Age of Insecurity: The Art of Peace in the Modern World.’’