America should prioritize international justice

'Butcher of Bosnia' Radovan Karadzic found guilty
'Butcher of Bosnia' Radovan Karadzic found guilty

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Story highlights

  • Eric Weitz: The United States has adopted what amounts to a military only approach to ISIS
  • A more successful approach would also entail an American commitment to international justice, he says

Eric D. Weitz is distinguished professor of history at the City College of New York and author of "A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)I sat 10 feet away from a genocide perpetrator. We were separated by a thick wall of bulletproof glass, but I could still feel his presence. Radovan Karadzic was cross-examining a Dutch battalion officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The officer was calm and cool, but I felt immensely sad for him.

Eric D. Weitz
The Dutchbat soldiers the officer had commanded, part of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars, had been excoriated by their fellow citizens upon their return home to the Netherlands. Why had they not protected Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica? Where were these Dutch peacekeepers when Serb paramilitaries slaughtered more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys and rounded up women and girls for deportation? With that kind of reception, many of the Dutchbat soldiers had succumbed to alcoholism, a few to suicide. Divorce rates among them were sky high. This despite the real culprit for the inadequate response at Srebrenica in 1994 being the United Nations, which had left its own peacekeepers terribly undermanned and underarmed, and subject to confusing orders that left them little choice but to remain passive.
    But I was not only sad at hearing what the Dutch officer had to say. I was enraged. Here was Karadzic, the political leader of those same Serb paramilitaries who had committed genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, a decade and a half later, smug and smart, badgering the Dutchbat officer. As I left the headquarters of the Hague Tribunal on that blustery fall afternoon, all I could think was: Where is the justice in all this?
    What does State Dept. declaration of ISIS actions as genocide mean?
    What does State Dept. declaration of ISIS actions as genocide mean?

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    What does State Dept. declaration of ISIS actions as genocide mean? 02:21
    Five years later, justice has triumphed.
    Last month, the Hague Tribunal convicted Karadzic of genocide and a host of other crimes. In fact, March has not been a good month for genocide perpetrators. Aside from the Karadzic case, the Democratic Republic of Congo turned over Ladislas Ntaganzwa, indicted as a major perpetrator of the Rwandan Genocide, to Rwanda. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry formally accused ISIS of committing genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shi'ite Muslims. And a U.S. drone attack killed Haji Imam, ISIS' second-in-command.
    Of course, the Hague Tribunal and its sister, the Arusha Tribunal -- convened for the Rwandan genocide -- have also been subject to withering criticism over the length and expense of the trials. Yet they have proved their mettle, winning convictions against some of the worst violators of human rights since the Nazi era. In the process, they have accumulated vast stores of documentary evidence on two of the most tragic events of the waning 20th century. Their archives will prove as vital as the Nuremberg Tribunal documents as scholars, politicians, servicemen and women, and regular citizens try to make sense of these horrific events.
    Do ISIS' actions meet the standard for genocide?
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    Do ISIS' actions meet the standard for genocide? 02:28
    But have the Hague and Arusha tribunals, and the International Criminal Court that has now superseded them, served an even more important purpose? Have the trial and convictions of Karadovic and fellow perpetrators, along with the outstanding indictments and manhunts that have yet to be completed, deterred others from committing similar acts?
    Clearly, we cannot know for sure yet. But so far, the situation does not look promising. ISIS continues to engage in brutalities with impunity, and relishes the spectacles of killings and tortures that it then puts out on social media. The Great Lakes region of Africa remains one of the worst humanitarian disaster areas on the planet, a place criss-crossed by warlords and regular armies seeking mineral wealth, political power, and revenge for past atrocities. The Sudanese air force drops bombs at will that devastate the Nuba people, another population that today is subject to genocide.
    But this doesn't change the reality that international justice has to be part of any effort to defeat the perpetrators of such crimes. And this is an area where the United States appears to be falling short.
    Of course, military force is required against states and movements that regularly defy international law and any decent code of morality. However, the United States has adopted what amounts to a military only approach to ISIS. Meanwhile, the Republican Party presidential candidates try to outdo one another in tough-guy rhetoric: Donald Trump says he'll just send in the troops, and Ted Cruz calls for carpet bombing to defeat ISIS. Both are displaying a boundless ignorance. Invade what? Bomb what? The cities held by ISIS, like Mosul and Raqqua? And kill tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the process?
    Both Cruz and Trump should read the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, completed at the end of World War II. To the dismay of U.S. officers and statesmen, the survey showed that American bombing had been far less successful in disrupting the German war machine than many had believed. And as a form of psychological warfare, carpet bombing produces the opposite of the desired effect -- however much a population may dislike the dictatorship under which it lives, when the bombs rain down, it usually blames the country that unleashes the bombs, not its own government. Ask the Vietnamese. Ask the Syrians.
    So yes, the United States is fully capable of killing ISIS leaders and other terrorists, as we have seen. But a more successful approach would also entail an American commitment to international justice. We should strive not just to kill, but also to capture ISIS leaders and other terrorists, including suicide bombers, and have them hauled before the ICC. We should make them understand that they won't be spending the future in heaven, but in a dreary prison cell for the rest of their lives. We can't know for certain that this will deter future terrorists and genocide perpetrators. But we do know for certain that bombs alone won't solve the problem.
    In the waning hours of the Clinton administration, the President committed the United States to the Rome Treaty that established the ICC. Within weeks, the Bush administration rescinded the decision. Hillary Clinton, if she becomes President, has the opportunity to rekindle the commitment to international justice that Bill Clinton belatedly affirmed as one of his last acts as President. She could make the United States a signatory of the Rome Treaty.
    In so doing, Clinton would not merely revive one of her husband's most important legacies, but would place America firmly on the side of international justice. After 15 years of failed American military interventions in the Middle East, imagine the impact that would have around the world: an America renowned not just for sending ground troops, F-22s, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and drones, but a United States committed to international justice and bringing to trial all those who perpetrate the worst crimes imaginable.