A new three-hour PBS series follows war crimes investigators and prosecutors as they pursue some of the worlds most notorious war criminals. The tactics that emerged from those pursuits now inform the effort to expose, prosecute, and punish present day human rights violators whose depredations have left millions dead and displaced.
In the third and final hour, we see both the revitalization of postwar justice over two decades and its limitations in confronting the exponential rise in civilian atrocities—sexual violence and genocide—occurring in the Balkans, Rwanda, Congo, Syria, Sri Lanka, and other countries.
The second hour looks at how the United States and the Soviet Union shoved international justice into the deep freeze of the Cold War, and how atrocities in conflicts with high numbers of civilian deaths—such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Guatemala—are covered up or ignored.
The film begins with vengeance: U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s 1945 military trial of Japan’s General Tomoyuki Yamashita for horrific atrocities in the Philippines. Despite the lack of any evidence that Yamashita ordered or even knew about the atrocities, he was condemned to death, raising the question: Are commanders responsible for crimes their troops commit?
Civilians worldwide are increasingly the targets of war crimes. An unprecedented three-part series examines the evolution of postwar justice in investigating genocide, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities, and in prosecuting the perpetrators.
Just as technology is changing the nature of war, it is also changing how war crimes are exposed. For over twenty years, the organization Witness has promoted the documentation of human rights abuses around the world.
The community tribunals known as Gacaca formally ended in 2012 with over 400,000 murder cases judged. Sentences for those who confessed their crimes were relatively brief, ten years on average. Defendants who did not confess and were convicted faced maximum sentences of thirty years.
The International Commission on Missing Persons has accounted for roughly seventy percent of the missing from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This success has given hope to the families of the thousands still missing — even as the likelihood decreases that the missing will be found.
Journalist and author Thierry Cruvellier has dedicated his career to examining international criminal justice. He has written extensively on the institutions created to investigate and prosecute war crimes and human rights violations, and has attended every international tribunal of the post-Cold War era.
The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation was founded in 1991 to identify victims of a thirty-year civil war between the government and leftist guerillas, many of them from the indigenous Mayan population. Both sides engaged in human rights violations during the war.
Like the Balkan conflict that preceded it, the genocide in Rwanda confronted the international community with its obligations under international and humanitarian law. But instead of intervention, there was inertia. The slaughter by the Hutu majority against the minority Tutsi and political moderates lasted one hundred days. At the end of it ten percent of the population was dead.
Like command responsibility, other conceptions of justice rapidly conceived by the Allies in the aftermath of WW2 would prove enduring. The most influential: The International Military Tribunal, created by the Allied powers in the ruins of Nuremberg, Germany to address the crimes of the Nazi State.