BOB GARFIELD: For nations scarred by war crimes, disappearances and other violent repression, it's been described as the last resort for justice – the international war crimes trial. It's often the only recourse available when the international community wants to bring its legal weight to bear on perpetrators of mass violence. And, as such, it has come to be a catchall, performing many roles for many people. Part media spectacle, part history lesson, part political score card, part attempt at truth and reconciliation, the trials have evolved into a messy media phenomenon, one that has become, with the creation of the International Criminal Court in 2002, an established part of the global order. Anthony Dworkin is a former journalist who now directs Crimes of War, an organization that connects journalists, lawyers and scholars to raise public awareness about the laws of war. He joins us now. Anthony, welcome to the show.
ANTHONY DWORKIN: Thanks, it's a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: We have seen quite a number of trials of late, including that of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague and Saddam Hussein's prosecution in Baghdad. But I guess the standards set for all subsequent war crimes trials was the tribunal for Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. What made Nuremberg work so well?
ANTHONY DWORKIN: Well, I think you're right. Nuremberg was, and remains, the point of reference for all of these war crimes trials. The prosecutors at Nuremberg had some tremendous advantages that later prosecutors, I think, would be very jealous of. One of them goes back to the very kind of systematic bureaucratic nature of the Nazi regime. They had a tremendous mass of evidence. And one of the problems that we've seen throughout some of these later war crimes trials is the higher up you go in the chain of command, the harder it is to prove a direct connection to the crimes. And then the other thing, when you're talking about public perceptions about the validity of the trial, the legitimacy of the process, there was a situation there where the Nazi regime had been comprehensively defeated, and so there was really no legitimacy left. They weren't really contending with a kind of large group who still thought somehow that the Nazis should be there.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, my memory of Nuremberg is based entirely on the film "Judgment at Nuremberg."
MAN: It is not easy to tell the truth, but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our gift must admit it, whatever the pain and humiliation. It was not a trial at all. It was a sacrificial ritual!
BOB GARFIELD: But what about contemporaneous coverage? How did the world public witness the Nuremberg trials?
ANTHONY DWORKIN: Newsreel coverage was the most important way that it was seen, particularly outside Germany. In addition, it was covered on radio and it was covered extensively in the press. One important point to remember is that the first trial, the one that we all think of as the Nuremberg trials, it just ran a matter of months, unlike some of the war crimes trials that we've seen since then, which have been much more drawn out, and therefore harder to cover from a media point of view.
BOB GARFIELD: And is it that protracted nature of subsequent commissions and trials that, in your view, have made subsequent prosecutions just less successful than Nuremberg?
ANTHONY DWORKIN: Well, I think we should quality that by saying that in some ways our expectations of these trials is a lot higher now than it was in Nuremberg. You know, there's a tendency, I think, for war crimes trials very quickly to be labeled either as a farce or as a circus. That's a narrative that seems to right itself very easily nowadays. And yet, if you go back and look at what happened at Nuremberg, there were many aspects to the Nuremberg trial that, if they were taking place today, we would be very quick to criticize. For instance, at one point they charged the wrong defendant by mistake. And then, of course, in a way a much more serious point, is that the Soviet Union was one of the prosecuting nations, and yet they had been responsible for many similar crimes that the Germans were being tried for.
BOB GARFIELD: The most recent slate of war crimes trials began in 1993 when the United Nations began to try perpetrators in the former Yugoslavia. What was the goal here? Was it jurisprudence, was it politics, history, reconciliation, show business, what?
ANTHONY DWORKIN: The Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, which is really the kind of--the beginning of the modern wave of international criminal justice, was set up almost by default. You know, I think it was a feeling like there must be some sort of retribution for these kinds of things. We can't just stand by and endorse them. So we're not going to intervene to stop them, but we're going to register our disapproval. And at the same time, coming as it did after the end of the cold war when there was this new feeling that the international community and the United Nations had to mean something, I think there was a new belief in the possibility of international law. But what we've seen as the court developed is that it had a lot of different audiences. One question was that of establishing a historical record determining who really had committed these crimes - were they genocide? Another question was, was it going to help the process of peace and reconciliation? That was what the Security Council said it was doing when it set up the court. It has been very important for the victims and for the witnesses who've testified there. And then another effect that it's had is simply in taking people out of the picture on the ground by making them into prisoners or making them go on the run.
BOB GARFIELD: Both the Milosevic and the Saddam Hussein prosecutions have given us the bonus feature of long screeds, the defendant in the dock railing against the powers arrayed against him. I gather this is something we can look forward to as long as we have despots in the dock.
ANTHONY DWORKIN: I do think that this is an inevitable aspect of these things, where in contrast to a trial within a normal domestic jurisdiction, you have a defendant who is very likely to reject the legitimacy of the court altogether and reject any notion that it's a kind of objective process. And then the balance that has to be struck is between letting them take over and appearing to shut them down and not give them a fair chance to speak. When it comes to the appearance of due process, you have to be pretty strict with that.
BOB GARFIELD: Giving these defendants such liberal use of the bully pulpit, can these trials actually undermine the goal of shedding light on a dark chapter of history?
ANTHONY DWORKIN: I think what happens is somehow it doesn't run as smoothly as people had hoped, and therefore, at a time when there still isn't consensus about what these things are supposed to be doing, people can then go to the opposite extreme and fall very easily into this narrative of “it's a farce,” forgetting that they are dealing with the aftermath of atrocities committed on a massive scale, defendants who reject the legitimacy of the court. And if you look at the International Criminal Court, which is going to be the new body dealing with these things, they are very aware of this. They've put quite a lot of effort into outreach and establishing the legitimacy of the tribunal.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Anthony, thank you so much.
ANTHONY DWORKIN: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Anthony Dworkin is the director of Crimes of War.org. Coming up, the President plays rope-a-dope with the media filter, and license plates as a license for self expression. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] This is On the Media from NPR. (FUNDING CREDITS)