Justice for genocide

Far too many of history’s greatest criminals have died peacefully in their beds, but recent decades have seen at least some progress made towards greater accountability. Today comes another example: Ion Ficior, former commander of a Communist-era prison camp in Romania, has been sentenced to 20 years jail (he’s 87) for crimes against humanity.

The big one this year, of course, has been the conviction last week of the former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadžić, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison on charges of genocide and other war crimes. You can read for yourself the very thorough statement of the international criminal tribunal.

It’s not certain that Karadžić will die in prison: previous defendants have been paroled after serving about two-thirds of their sentence, and Karadžić will get credit for the eight years that he has already been in custody. He could conceivably walk free in about 20 years, at which time he will be 90 – not an age at which anyone resumes a career as a war criminal.

But although Karadžić’s case is distinctive – in company with that of Ratko Mladić, once his military commander, who is still on trial in The Hague – the questions about criminal responsibility that it raises have an everyday familiarity.

We’re used to seeing reporters interviewing victims and their relatives during a criminal trial, asking how they feel about the process or its outcome. Some of this has even invaded the courtroom itself, with “victim impact statements” being heard in many jurisdictions prior to sentencing.

Bigger crimes are more newsworthy, so it’s the more serious cases we tend to hear about – but it’s also the serious cases that show how pointless it is to focus on the victim’s point of view.

For less serious matters, compensation is a real possibility. If your car has been stolen or your front fence vandalised, it’s possible, at least in principle, to get something back from the perpetrator that rights the wrong you have suffered. Even if you don’t end up getting any compensation, we feel we can balance the offence and the penalty in a reasonably satisfactory way.

But if your daughter has been raped and murdered, or your house burned down with half your family in it, talk of compensation is absurd, and the media’s insistence on looking at the victim’s point of view can be downright offensive.

One sympathises with the survivors in these cases, but we have to also realise that nothing the justice system can do will be of much use to them; what they need most is to put the crime behind them and get on with their lives. Pursuit of the offender has to be justified not by their interests, but by the interests of society.

Crimes don’t get any bigger than genocide, and the same lesson has been played out with Karadžić. The TV networks have found us veterans from Srebrenica and the like for the human interest angle; the New York Times has one survivor, “who said she had lost her only son, husband, cousins and all the other men from her family,” complain that Karadžić “should have had a life sentence.”

But the real import of the trial was elsewhere. Crimes against humanity are not pursued for the sake of the particular group that falls victim in a particular case. The whole point is that the interests of humanity in general are involved.

The likes of Karadžić have to be hunted down not to give closure to the victims (could there ever be “closure” for genocide?), but to ensure security to the rest of us and vindicate our claim to live in a civilised world.

Whether or not last week’s sentence may bring some comfort to the people of Bosnia, its message transcends their particular circumstances. We do the victims of genocide no good by insisting that they have a personal stake in Karadžić’s fate. We all have that stake: not as victims but as citizens.

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