Justice, Justification, and Crimes Against Humanity

Tell It to the World: International Justice and the Secret Campaign to Hide Mass Murder in Kosovo, by Eliot Behar, (Dundurn), 264 pages, release date 27 January, 2015

Eliot Behar’s Tell It to the World is absolutely essential reading. Not just for those interested in current global politics or those interested in forensic science or those interested in international courts or….

Tell It to the World is absolutely essential reading. For anyone.

Eliot Behar worked as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court established to hear cases of crimes against humanity that occurred during the collapse of Yugoslavia. The prosecution team he worked with was genuinely global with members from Canada, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Jamaica, Malaysia, Norway, and the United States (Behar is Canadian). They were responsible for prosecuting Vlastimir Dordevic, former Assistant Minister of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs and Chief of the Public Security Department, positions that made him responsible for police forces in Kosovo and Serbia.

Because this is a book about human rights abuses and genocide, it does not make for easy reading at times. Nonetheless, Behar is a remarkably clear writer, capable of conveying this information with precision and a minimum of embellishment. This kind of giving witness is essential for the historical record. As Behar puts it, “to strive for justice is to seek not only to punish but to declare this is not the way things should be.”

Behar also spends a good portion of the book wrestling with the questions of how people come to feel justified in committing crimes against humanity and the way they view these crimes later on. Ironically, he finds the motivation for crimes against humanity in our own desire for justice, the same desire that lies behind the creation of the International Criminal Court: “Justified is a powerful word, which seems to receive too little of our attention. It conveys that an act that would otherwise be unacceptable is considered—for some particular reason— to be morally and ethically permissible.”

Almost all of us would say that genocide is immoral under any circumstances. In specific moments, however, leaders and their people can construct specific narratives that make genocide appropriate within that single context: “such violence is not typically caused by an absence of, or lack of attention to, justice and morality. It is, instead, caused by the direct and overriding pursuit of a misdirected view of morality and justice, constructed as justification in the minds of the perpetrators.” And it is not only monsters who can be led to embrace this kind of justification. The possibility for embracing it lies within us all.

Tell It to the World is doubly essential. It is essential because it records a period in human history that is essential to remember. It is also essential because it helps readers to think beyond a specific atrocity to consider the ways in which our societies’ failures have allowed these atrocities to happen.

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