A conflict between justice and the law

Historical Notes: Finian Cunningham
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The Independent Culture
CALLS FOR justice in the case of Augusto Pinochet were countered by calls from leading political and economic figures in Chile, Britain and elsewhere for what seems to be a higher objective in the South American country: stability. The case illustrates the aphorism coined by Herbert Pell, the US delegate to the United Nations War Crimes Commission during the Second World War, who noted: "There has always been a certain conflict between justice and the law."

There are substantial grounds and legal mechanisms for a prosecution. But there is a historic tendency among Western powers in particular to turn a blind eye to crimes against humanity, in the interests of stability. This "stability" has often little to do with justice or meaningful peace and everything to do with securing political and economic advantage for the arbitrating powers.

Historical experience suggests that reneging on justice for victims of state-sponsored crimes serves grievously to weaken the force of international law and to sow the seeds for future despotism.

A pertinent example is the genocide of the Armenian people perpetrated by the Ittihadist regime in Turkey, one of the most notorious episodes of the First World War, in which up to a million Armenians died. At the height of the killings, public outrage in Britain and America spurred the governments of Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson to commit themselves to prosecute the Ittihadists at the war's end for "crimes against humanity and civilisation".

However, in the post-war carve-up of Turkey's Ottoman empire, the demands for justice by the Western powers were subordinated to their strategic interests of stabilising new territories in the oil-rich region. By deftly playing Britain, France and the US off against another, the Turks were able to get the Western powers to renege on their erstwhile commitment to establish an Armenian republic and specifically to grant amnesty to all Ittihadists involved in the genocide of the Armenians.

This ignominious betrayal not only forfeited an opportunity to underpin international law, it would serve as a precedent for a later, terrifyingly greater crime against humanity: the Jewish Holocaust. When Hitler was fleshing out his programme of racial extermination, he would often refer to the Armenian genocide, and specifically the international powers' unwillingness to do anything about it, as a crucial precedent. As early as June 1931, he is recorded as saying that the "extermination of the Armenians" had taught him to see "masses of men as mere biological plasticine"; in 1939, as his Final Solution for the Jews was being implemented the Fuhrer was to demand, "Who still talks of the Armenians?"

The Nuremberg Trials are widely presumed to be a high point in international law enforcement but, as Herbert Pell and others were to note, justice was compromised even in this most heinous case of crimes against humanity. While the most prominent Nazis were convicted by the Western powers, thousands of other senior Nazis, SS commandants and Gestapo officers were to walk free. One such, the Gestapo leader Walter Rauss, who had gained promotion for his innovative use of gas trucks to murder Jewish women and children on the Eastern Front, was to enjoy a life of freedom in Chile thanks to the intercession of American Intelligence and Italian ecclesiastics.

The rationale for abrogating thorough prosecution and denazification by the Western powers was their imperative need for securing "political and economic stability" in a post-war Germany and Europe faced with a surge in anti-Fascist sentiment and widespread popularity of democratic socialism.

Who talks of the Armenians, the Jews, or indeed the disappeared of Chile?

A study of genocide and human rights, `The Splendid Blond Beast' by Christopher Simpson, is published by Grove Press (pounds 12)