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The best books on Human Rights

recommended by Gary Bass

Stay the Hand of Vengeance by Gary Bass

Stay the Hand of Vengeance
by Gary Bass


Political scientist Gary Bass picks the five best books on human rights (this article was published on June 24th, 2009)

Stay the Hand of Vengeance by Gary Bass

Stay the Hand of Vengeance
by Gary Bass

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So the topic is human rights and your first book is by Robert Jackson, who was the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. Why this book?

This is an extraordinary piece of human rights rhetoric, and really a magnificent statement of some of what the human rights movement is about. It’s the opening statement by the American prosecution at Nuremberg in November 1945.

Jackson is a fascinating guy. He’s a Supreme Court Justice who is on loan firstly to run the negotiations to set up the Nuremberg trials and then to be the chief prosecutor of the trials themselves. And it scandalizes his Chief Justice, who is horrified that Jackson is going off and doing this, what he views as a high grade lynching party. But Jackson, who was a former attorney general and quite close to FDR, goes off nonetheless to do this great big job. He delivers a totally magnificent opening statement, which is full of wonderfully quotable, ringing, Shakespearean phrases and sentences. Right at the beginning, he says: “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.” It’s just great stuff. And it’s also quite forward looking, looking to the place Nuremberg will take in history. He says, “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

Very Shakespearean.

Isn’t that great? The “poisoned chalice” reference is from Macbeth.

And you’re saying that he was going out on a limb, that his approach wasn’t the norm at that point?

That’s what’s so impressive about him. He was going against the grain in a couple of ways. First is that this wasn’t originally what the US government wanted to do with the senior Nazi leadership. The original policy was actually summary executions. There’s a huge fight within the Roosevelt administration about what they’re going to do with the Nazi war criminals, once they’re actually defeated. American public opinion was incredibly vindictive. There are Gallup polls showing that only between 1% and 10% of Americans — depending on how the question is worded — are in favor of war crimes trials. A vastly bigger percentage are in favor of summary execution. You get lots of Americans calling for torture, you get people calling for extermination of all the Japanese. You have this incredibly vindictive war-time public opinion.

Did you say exterminating all Japanese?

Yes. According to a Gallup poll in 1944, when they were asked what should be done to punish the Japanese, 13% of Americans said kill all Japanese.

That’s quite frightening.

Yes, war-time public opinion is not pretty. Jackson is standing up to that. At one point he even says “I don’t give a damn what the Gallup poll says.” So at that moment he’s maybe not a very good democrat, but he’s a very good human rights advocate. Also, unlike FDR, he doesn’t blame the entire German people, he doesn’t want to turn it into a kind of blanket denunciation of all the Germans. He wants to single out individual responsibility within the leadership. Also, he remembered that there were attempts at war crimes trials after World War I, which were disasters. Today it’s easy to think of Nuremberg as over-determined — that, of course the victorious Western democracies were going to put the Nazi war criminals on trial. But in fact it was a much more hard fought, bureaucratic fight, especially within the US government, to actually get there.

And then, once you get to Nuremberg you have to manage the problems of making an international tribunal fair, to make it actually work. That’s one of the most impressive things about Nuremberg — there were actually acquittals, there’s real legal process. And you have to remember that you also have the Soviet Union there, with their own judge and their own prosecutors.

At first Stalin just wanted to have summary executions on a massive scale, and Stalin says this to Roosevelt and Churchill. In 1943, at the Tehran Conference, Stalin proposes shooting at least 50,000 Germans, and FDR makes this incredibly painful joke where he says that 49,000 ought to be enough. Churchill, who understands that Stalin is not kidding, explodes at Stalin, and then storms out.

But once you get to Nuremberg, you have the Soviets there with this really totalitarian view of what political trials are supposed to be. So that’s what Jackson has to fight against too. Every day in Nuremberg he has the Soviets pushing him to try to turn it into something like the Moscow trials, the show trials Stalin used to purge his opponents in the 1930’s. Jackson really has to struggle to make it a real, genuinely liberal trial.

The history of war trials is fascinating, and I notice you used a quote from Jackson as the title of your own book on war crime tribunals. But your next book is on something quite different —Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations.

Yes, this is a classic book by Michael Walzer, who is a very distinguished political theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study. The book has gone through various editions, but it first came out in 1977 and was in part an attempt to make sense of the debates about Vietnam. But it’s really a counterstrike against what is still a very common view — that there is no such thing as morality in warfare, or maybe that the only moral duty in warfare is just to get the war over with as soon as possible. So there are no moral constraints in when war should be fought, or how war should be fought. Michael Walzer’s whole book is an attempt to revive a system of thinking – known as ‘just war theory’ – about when war is justified and how you can fight a war. So Walzer argues that there really is what he calls “moral reality” to war. That there is a shared moral vocabulary about things like killing civilians, killing prisoners of war, and aggression, that shows there really is an underlying moral code that governs that we do and we should think about war.

So when is a war just?

There are two main elements to the way this book says you should think about whether a war is a just war. The first is whether or not it’s right to fight the war in the first place. For him, aggression is the great international crime. Going to war leads inevitably to the mutual escalation of warfare. If one side does something, the other side has to try to top that, and war gets more and more brutal. It makes states turn against their own citizens — states force their citizens to go off and fight, and so, according to Michael Walzer, who’s a great liberal, war is actually a form of tyranny.

The second part of the way that he says you should think about war is how you actually fight it. You need to have a just cause for fighting, and self-defense is the classic just cause for fighting, but even if you’re fighting a just war of self-defense, you have to fight it with proper means – you’re not allowed to target all their civilians, you’re not allowed to shoot POWs, you’re not allowed to kill wounded soldiers.

So when you say he’s trying to make sense of Vietnam, he’s actually opposing it.

He was a dove on Vietnam, he was a dove on Iraq. He thinks it was right to fight World War II, which for Britain and France starts with German aggression against Poland, and for the US starts with Japanese aggression at Pearl Harbor.

But the great thing about this book is that he’s a very worldly kind of political theorist, and he gives this gritty soldier level’s view of how wars are actually fought, and how diplomacy is actually carried out. He wants it to be a realistic, practical guide to war fighting–not a kind of abstract, theoretical exercise. The book is full of real world historical examples, including Nuremberg and Korea and the Six-Day War and the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. He uses examples from all over the place in history – everything from the Peloponnesian War to Vietnam.

And he really gets into the soldiers’ mindset?

Yes, soldiers and decision-makers. He’s really thinking about what war looks like on the ground. So, one of the Nuremberg principles is command responsibility, that senior officials bear responsibility for what their subordinates do. But Michael Walzer makes the point, which any military person would make, that a lot of what people do in war is to try and break up a general’s control of his troops. You try to screw up people’s communications, you try to make the troops disobey orders, you try to break down the other guy’s military machine. You spend the whole war trying to break down command responsibility, and there’s something actually a bit weird that then, when the war is over, you turn around and say “Oh but you bear responsibility for all of this.” That’s an argument that seems influenced by him spending a lot of time talking to military people.

Your next book is by Samantha Power, ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide.

This is another wonderfully written book. All these books we’re talking about are about very different things, but they’re beautifully written. So this one is by a very brave, and very principled Harvard professor and reporter, who has done great reporting from everywhere from Bosnia to Darfur to Zimbabwe, at enormous personal risk, and who is now working in the Obama White House. It’s very impressive that Obama brought her in, because this is a book that is incredibly tough on the way that foreign policy is made in Washington.

Her basic point is that the United States denounces genocide and says genocide is a terrible thing, but almost never actually acts when it counts. And she knocks down a lot of the standard excuses for that inaction. She says it’s not that people didn’t know about what was happening, say, in Rwanda. Because people often did have a lot of information. And It’s not that people couldn’t do anything, because she shows that there were lots and lots of steps that could have been taken, even without taking military action. There are diplomatic steps, there are economic sanctions — we could, for example, have jammed the hate radio in Rwanda, which played an active role in coordinating the extermination. And these steps weren’t taken either. So her tough conclusion is that the American non-intervention in the face of genocide is not about the American political system being broken, and if only the system was working better then the US would do more to stop genocide. She says this is how the system is supposed to work, this system is doing what it’s supposed to do.

So her view is that these genocides could have been prevented, but the US government couldn’t be bothered to do anything about them?

Yes. From the Armenian genocide, to the Holocaust, to Cambodia, to Rwanda, she looked at all of these examples where there were military and non-military things that could have been done. And weren’t done. In Rwanda you actually have a UN force on the ground, and Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who is in charge of that force, is begging for a larger force to stand up against the genocide. And the Clinton administration does almost nothing to back it up. Some people in the Clinton administration are worried about the UN beefing up its presence by finding troops elsewhere — for example there are Belgian reservists in Nairobi. After Somalia, some people worry that if you send in these non-US troops, and they get into trouble, then it’s going to be the Americans who are going to have to come in and bail them out.

When she looks back to World War II, is she making the point that while these days it seems as if it was all about the Holocaust, at the time the US was pretty indifferent to the fate of European Jews?

She’s deeply aware of that. She knows a huge amount about the Holocaust and sees it as part of this overall trend. Woodrow Wilson finally got into World War I, not because of the Armenian genocide, but because of German aggression against US ships. America finally gets into World War II, not because of the Holocaust but because of Pearl Harbor. And even during the Holocaust the US does very little to try to rescue European Jews. What is done comes along very, very late in the extermination. Even on something simple like immigration of Jews fleeing Europe, 90% of the relevant pre-war immigration quotas are left unfilled during the war.

I know that in 1939 the US turned away a ship filled with nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees fleeing from Germany. Is it because of that kind of thing that the quotas were left unfilled?

The notorious example is the St. Louis, which was a ship from Europe that came close to Florida and to Cuba, close enough to see the lights of Miami, and is turned back. But more generally the part of the State Department that dealt with immigration was being run by a nativist, anti-Semitic official, named Breckinridge Long. And he did everything he could to throw bureaucracy in the way of letting in European Jews. That’s the kind of thing Samantha Power is looking at, and she’s looking at all these historical examples all the way up to Bosnia and Rwanda.

So do you think Obama has brought Power into the administration to change that non-interventionist approach?

Well, I don’t know what he’s thinking, but Obama is going to face some of these kinds of tests, the tests that she lays out in the book. He is likely to face some version of genocide or mass atrocity in his time in office. And he has brought in one of the people in the world who is most likely to get in his face and make it really hard for him just to do the politically expedient thing and ignore it. It shows a real self-confidence, and hopefully a real moral center to Obama that he has brought her in.

Your next choice is David Rohde’s book on Srebrenica, which I gather from the reviews has one big thing in common with Power’s book, namely that this was something that could have been prevented, that could have been avoided.

Yes, so this book is an incredibly detailed, day-to-day construction of the fall of Srebrenica in July of 1995 by a very brave and very smart investigative reporter for the New York Times. He’s the reporter who just escaped from the Taliban— he was seized seven months ago while doing interviews for a new book on America’s involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s indescribably wonderful that he’s free. He hates to talk about himself, but in 1995 he was also taken prisoner by the Bosnian Serbs while reporting on Srebrenica.

Endgame is this completely gripping account of how the Srebrenica massacre unfolded — from the perspective of the Serbs who conquered Srebrenica, from the point of view of the Bosnian Muslims who fled or were slaughtered, and also the perspective of the UN peacekeepers there, who were Dutch. It’s really one of the great disasters of UN peacekeeping. Some 7,000 people are systematically killed by the Serb nationalist forces, making it the worst war crime in Europe since World War II, while you have this UN peacekeeping mission on the ground.

It’s this incredibly vivid day-by-day and hour-by-hour reconstruction of the disaster, from every angle. You’re following it as the Serb nationalist forces led by Ratko Mladic are getting ready to go after the Bosnians. Mladic is the military leader of the Serb nationalist forces in Bosnia and has now been twice indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the UN war crimes tribunal. And he is still at large and has been spotted many times in Serbia.

Mladic is driving the attack every step of the way, his military are sweeping in from the south. Along the way, they also attack the UN, the Dutch observation posts, and they take hostages. The Dutch are outnumbered and outgunned, and they’re abandoning their posts. And you know how it’s going to end — and yet it’s still just excruciating reading about the attempt to try and see if NATO will use air power, what’s called close air support, to try to stop this Serb advance. And in the end there isn’t. There’s one quick strike, after six Dutch requests, but there’s no serious use of close air support. There’s civilians desperately fleeing everywhere. Mladic personally enters the town. When the town falls, what the Serb forces do is separate the women from the men and boys – some as young as 12 years old, and some as old as 77 years old. And the men and boys of Srebrenica either flee into the woods and are hunted down and shelled and shot by the Serb nationalist forces, or the ones who don’t flee are gathered up and systematically executed by well organized Serb nationalist death squads. Late at night the Dutch troops hear gunshots coming from the soccer field.

Why didn’t the air-strikes come? Is there a simple reason?

The most basic reason is that there aren’t really NATO governments that are invested in stopping this, that are prepared to make a big commitment, and to take risks. The UN forces on the ground actually functioned, in some ways, as hostages. There were 450 Dutch troops that are surrounded at their base in Potocari. And people are afraid that if you start bombing Mladic’s forces, he will retaliate against the Dutch. This was a classic move in Mladic’s playbook, to take UN peacekeepers hostage, and turn around and bluff the NATO governments saying “Look, I know you guys are much more worried about your own soldiers than you are about these Bosnians, so just let me get away with it.” And the UN has learned a lot of lessons from this, this real low moment of peacekeeping. Because considering the terrible situations UN troops are normally going into, the UN peacekeepers often do rather well, and they learned some important lessons from Srebrenica.

What can be done differently?

For one thing, you can have your troops go in with rules of engagement, so that they can actually defend the civilian population properly. For the UN mission which was in place in Bosnia, their rules of engagement were that they were basically there to secure deliveries of humanitarian aid. So they can defend themselves, and they can defend UN aid convoys, but they weren’t allowed to return fire if Bosnian civilians were getting killed under their nose. The joint UN-African Union mission that’s on the ground in Darfur now, has much tougher rules of engagement. The UN has learned something from the experience in Srebrenica.

So this book is just full of cautionary tales about intervention, about what it really means on the ground, about how to make intervention work properly, and the way in which things can go horribly wrong. It tells the story from every side, with this scrupulous commitment to getting the facts out, to telling the whole story. It’s an incredible piece of reporting. It’s just a great book.

What about your last book, Legalism: Law, Morals and Political Trials.

This is by a political theorist who taught at Harvard but whose first experience of politics was actually as a refugee. Her family fled from Latvian anti-Semitism and Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, they fled via Sweden and Japan and Canada and then she wound up teaching at Harvard. Sadly, she died very suddenly in 1992. It’s political philosophy but written from the perspective of the victim of politics. It loops back to the first book, we were talking about, Jackson’s book about Nuremberg. So this is a book about war crimes trials and what they can really usefully do, what’s the point of them, how can you bring law to apply to something as complicated and as morally difficult as war. And she’s in some ways very tough on international law. Her main concern is what kind of political result you can get from a war crimes trial. She wants these to be liberal political results, and she’s repulsed by the Moscow show trials. But her main justification for Nuremberg is that the charges of crimes against humanity can resonate to German thinkers, who are comfortable with the legal vocabulary that’s being used at Nuremberg. So the Nuremberg trials reinforce the pre-Nazi legal sensibility that was there in Germany, which the Nazis tried to destroy and that Shklar wants to resuscitate. But she’s also aware that what Jackson is really trying to prosecute at Nuremberg is aggressive war. Like Michael Walzer, Jackson thinks invading another country is the main international crime, and all other Nazi crimes flow from that aggression or were preparation for that aggression. Shklar disagrees with that. She thinks that you’re never going to be able to outlaw war, and given that obviously wars go on to this day, Shklar seems to be depressingly correct so far about that. War hasn’t been made illegal, even though aggression is what the American prosecution was really going after at Nuremberg. So this book is a very rich and nuanced look at how law and politics work together, or how they fight against each other. It’s a complicated and rich book.

Is it not so much a book for the general reader?

She is a great writer, so it’s not for academics only. It’s not as accessible a book as the other four. It’s theoretical and can get pretty dense. But it’s particularly interesting for people who are lawyers, because it’s a meditation about when law matters, and the possibilities and the limits of the law. And for people who are trained in law, that is something that is really interesting. When I teach this book to law students, they’re really drawn to it.

And it’s pointing out the limitations of the law?

Both the limitations and the successes. She thinks Nuremberg really got something done, it really did make a positive difference in the future political evolution of a liberal and democratic Germany. But some lawyers are uncomfortable with the political justifications for it. So depending on how a person thinks about the interaction of law and society, and the interaction of law and politics, some people would find it very challenging and subversive, that the two are so linked. Others would say, well of course that’s how it works. That’s why it’s challenging reading.

June 24, 2009

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Gary Bass

Gary Bass

Gary Bass is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, and Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. He has worked as a reporter for the Economist and has written for the New York Times.

Gary Bass

Gary Bass

Gary Bass is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, and Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. He has worked as a reporter for the Economist and has written for the New York Times.