Monday, July 26, 2010

Crimes Against Humanity & The Road To Justice

Scrolling through the week's headlines, its interesting to note that Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch, has officially and finally been convicted of crimes against humanity, almost forty years after the Cambodian genocide.

To read the full article, click here. For plans to appeal his sentence, click here.

I'm not very familiar with the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia at all. While I've heard references to the genocide, I haven't studied it nor have I really read up on it. However, at the face of it, what does seem strangely familiar about this recent conviction is the process of convicting the notorious leaders of well-known war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

In my fourth year, I was able to take a Holocaust course with an amazing pofessor who opened my eyes to aspects of genocide that never previously crossed my mind. And in this class, I discovered one of the most eye-opening books I've ever read. If you choose to read it (borrow my copy, if you like), I promise you that this book will move you, challenge you, and perhaps even make you tear up just a litle. This book, Gitta Sereny's Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, follows the life of Franz Stangl, commandant of two of Hitler's four mass extermination camps (Treblinka and Sobibor). As a result of Sereny's conversations with Stangl in his prison cell, the book takes us through his early life, his eventual affiliation with the Nazi party, his reign of Sobibor and Treblinka, his escape aftter the war, and eventually his arrest and death.

While there were many aspects of this book that struck me, I was particularly fascinated by how long it took to finally and officially find and convict Stangl of his crimes. The escape of Nazi affiliates, SS guards, and those involved in extermination and concentration camps was well-known in post-war Europe. With the help of friends and associates, Stangl himself was able to escape to Brazil with his family to live a normal life until Simon Weisenthal (Nazi hunter extraordinaire) eventually led his arrest. He was officially convicted in 1970, twenty-five years after the war ended.

Why does it take so long to arrest or convict well-known, infamous leaders for their crimes in history? While we can take into account the priorities and state of post-war Europe, we cannot deny that there were (and are) still many Nazi collaborators and genocide contributors who were not fully convicted or recognized for their part in the Holocaust. Quick convictions and punishments for heinous crimes seems like an obvious priority, but history shows that it isn't. The road to justice is a long one, and while I don't fully know the answer to my question above, I think that the length of time to either arrest or convict wartime criminals can find its roots in the friendships/relationships/affiliations that wartime criminals hold with those still in power. Stangl, as I mentioned, was protected by a number of Nazi supporters in post-war Europe, resulting in his escape to Brazil. I'll re-iterate a quote written on one of my favourite t-shirts: "Everything is political." Politics is a funny thing, friends, and it's everywhere, even in the face of the most tragic circumstances. And despite the deaths of thousands of people, political loyalties can still hold true to protect those who took part in historical crimes, no matter how tragic they were. Loyalties can last for months, for years, until (at least for some wartime leaders) criminals are submitted for trial and conviction.

Side Note: Another interesting aspect of war crime conviction is denial. I mentioned above that Duch plans to appeal his prison sentence... despite his role in the murder and torture of thousands of innnocent people. In Sereny's book, Stangl himself never ever truly admits to his part in the murder of thousands. He admits to feeling a sense of unexplainable sorrow, a sense of regret about the Holocaust, but he never directly addresses the deaths in Treblinka and Sobibor as murders he was involved in, despite the years he spent in his prison cell.

While a number of individuals sit and wait their turn for trials, from those involved in the Rwandan genocide, the murders in Kosovo, those involved with the Khmer Rouge, and a number of others, the obvious goal will always be justice. And despite the problems of bureaucracy, political friendships, and length of procedure, the sense of justice delivered at an eventual conviction will forever be priceless, particularly for the families and friends of those who did not live to see it.

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