After years of collecting evidence against Slobodan Milosevic, the prosecutors at The Hague expected a decisive victory. But as the former Yugoslav president, who insisted on defending himself, began his opening statement at his war crimes trial last February, his accusers realized they’d got more than they had bargained for. Ever the wily politician, Milosevic railed that the trial was a political farce staged by an illegal court determined to rewrite history and condemn not only him but the entire Serbian nation.
But if Milosevic’s assault was an irritant, it should have come as no surprise. After all, his arguments hark back to those of one of our most renowned modern philosophers. Indeed, behind every contemporary war crimes tribunal, it seems, looms the shadow of Hannah Arendt. Reflecting on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann, Arendt raised some of the same sorts of objections. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt took to task the prosecution, which she claimed transformed the trial of one Nazi functionary into a stage for manipulating history and indoctrinating future generations. For prosecutors to use the trial of an individual to expose and judge the atrocities of an entire war, Arendt wrote, “can only detract from the law’s main business: to weigh the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment and to mete out due punishment.” To Arendt, a criminal trial could never truly respond to the scale of Nazi atrocities: “It is quite conceivable that certain political responsibilities among nations might some day be adjudicated in an international court; what is inconceivable is that such a court would be a criminal tribunal which pronounced on the guilt or innocence of individuals.”
Yet modern war crimes tribunals are attempting to do just that, and Arendt’s arguments stand as a persistent challenge–one that is sure to take on more urgency as the first permanent international criminal court begins its work, over vehement US opposition (the Bush Administration has just announced it is renouncing President Clinton’s signature of the treaty creating the court). In The Key to My Neighbor’s House, Elizabeth Neuffer, a reporter for the Boston Globe, implicitly takes it on. Although Neuffer doesn’t discuss Arendt’s views directly, her portrayal of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda ultimately serve as a persuasive reply.
Neuffer devotes the first half of her book to the 1990s conflicts in the Balkans and Rwanda, interspersing stories of survivors with historical and political analysis and intermittent on-the-scenes reporting. She recounts how in each region, power-hungry nationalists exploited old ethnic tensions to spark a genocide with political aims. Although not always artfully told, the narrative effectively conveys the tragedy of each war, highlighting horrors such as the shelling and siege of Sarajevo, the fall of Srebrenica and the subsequent mass execution of Muslim men and boys. Concerning Rwanda, she describes how escalating tensions between Hutus and Tutsis grew increasingly violent until they culminated in the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in less than 100 days. Although detailed and heartfelt, such stories have been told before (Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families has become a classic on the genocide in Rwanda). What Neuffer adds is a revealing portrait of the two international tribunals where survivors eventually sought justice. Her portrayal serves as convincing evidence that, contrary to Arendt’s contention, these courts can and should play more than a traditional legalistic role.