Aryeh Neier

War Crimes: How Much Do We Care About Them?

VTR Date: September 16, 1998

Guest: Neier, Aryeh


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Aryeh Neier
Title: “War Crimes: How Much do We Care About Them?”
Recorded: 9/16/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today has over the years claimed our attention in many different areas as Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, which he helped found, and as Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, notably at the time it and he defended so vigorously freedom of speech for American Nazis, Fascists, KKK members and other extremist anti-Semites when in the 1970s they sought to hold a particularly provocative demonstration in the town of Skokie, Illinois, home to a large number of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

Now Aryeh Neier, who fled Nazi Germany as a child, is President of the Soros Foundation and its Open Society Institute.

What I want to focus on today however, is his compelling and devastatingly graphic just-published Times book entitled War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror and the Struggle for Justice.

Our question, of course: How much and how effectively do we Americans care about war crimes and brutality, genocide and terror when they occur in what we consider the far corners of the globe?…In the Balkans for instance, or in Central Africa. What’s your evaluation of that…our concern?

Neier: Well, I think we care about them most, when we know the most about them. When they’re brought home to us the way they were in the case of Bosnia which was on the nightly news, every night. When the siege of Sarajevo was on television every evening I think we care quite a lot. On the other hand if they happen to take place in a part of the world which is more difficult to cover and which is not considered comparably newsworthy, then we see very little about them and they seem no to have the same impact on Americans.

Heffner: But then what happens to the end of your sub-title here, the way you write “war crimes, brutality, genocide, terror and the struggle for justice?” What happens to our participation in the struggle for justice when the view is dimmed somewhat, when our awareness is diminished?

Neier: Well, I think that our participation suffers from another problem as well. And that is American exceptionalism. That is, we Americans rely on American institutions to protect our own rights…the Supreme Court of the United Sates and other institutions to protect our rights. People elsewhere in the world don’t have domestic institutions which are comparably effective in protecting their rights, and so I think to a much greater extent they look to international mechanisms to protect them. So I think Americans perhaps less than people elsewhere want to struggle to create international institutions to do justice.

Heffner: What you call “universal jurisdiction” here?

Neier: Well, “universal jurisdiction” is one way in which we have been doing justice internationally in the past half century when there are great crimes that are committed. “Universal jurisdiction” means that a court anywhere in the world can exercise jurisdiction over certain very great crimes when it happens to get custody of the person who’s accused of committing those crimes. Let me just use one example. A couple of years ago in Britain, a man who was 84 years old was indicted for crimes that he committed in Belarus during World War II, 53 years earlier. The British courts said that they had “universal jurisdiction” to sit in judgment for war crimes that were committed as part of the Nazi Holocaust at a much earlier time in history and far distant from Britain.

Heffner: What do you think about that concept?

Neier: I think it’s very important. I think that it suggests that certain crimes re not only crimes against a particular state and we’re used to thinking of prosecutions in terms of the state versus John Doe. But some crimes are of such significance that they are crimes against the whole world, what we call “crimes against humanity”. And I think it is important in those circumstances that humanity as a whole would say, “We’re going to hold accountable these persons. The fact that they are beyond the jurisdiction of the particular place where the crimes were committed, or that state may not be ready to sit in judgment, is not going to allow them to escape”. And there are ancient roots to this concept.

Heffner: To what…you talk about ancient roots…

Neier: Yes.

Heffner: …but to what extent are there modern indications that we embrace that notion effectively?

Neier: Well, I would say we embrace it sporadically. There have been prosecutions of this sort in a number of countries, a number of European countries, especially when they have somehow gotten custody of people who were involved in the crimes committed by the Nazis. But more recently there have been such prosecutions in the case of contemporary disasters. For example, in Belgium there were a number of Rwandans who were prosecuted for crimes against other Rwandans that took place during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. That was an example of the exercise of “universal jurisdiction” and the establishment by the United Nations of two tribunals, one for the former Yugoslavia and one for Rwanda was an expression by the world community, as a whole, very much supported by the United States, that a body created in this way could exercise “universal jurisdiction” over the people who committed the terrible crimes that took place in, in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Heffner: This has to do with after the deed, after the…

Neier: After.

Heffner: …the dirty deed.

Neier: Although in the case of the former Yugoslavia, it wasn’t only after the dirty deed, because the dirty deeds were still taking place. For example, the court of the former Yugoslavia was created by the United Nations in 1993. The massacre at Srebrenica in which perhaps 8,000 Muslim men and boys were, were murdered took place in 1995. And the Tribunal indicted General Ratco Mladic and Radovan Karadzic for the massacre at Srebrenica. Later in 1995, the Tribunal had already been functioning for a couple of years when that massacre took place and now there are crimes that are being committed in Kosovo and the Tribunal has jurisdiction over those crimes, and I expect that it will issue indictments in connection with those crimes.

Heffner: Go back to the question of effectiveness.

Neier: Well, effectiveness can be measured in various ways. Effectiveness could be measured in terms of deterrents of these kinds of crimes, and I’m not ready to clam that they have been deterred by these prosecutions. I think we know in terms of ordinary street crime that among the factors that are influential in terms of deterrents are the swiftness and sureness with which people will be apprehended and brought to justice. And we’re a long way away from swiftness and sureness.

Heffner: You write about amnesty.

Neier: Yes.

Heffner: What role does that play?

Neier: Well, very often there have been efforts in recent years to forgive the people who were engaged in certain crimes. I think of a lot of the amnesties as corrupt, because they are amnesties issued by the people who committed the crimes and defectively, they pardoned themselves. I don’t think that’s the purpose historically of an amnesty. I think the purpose of an amnesty is if someone has ten up arms against the government and the government eventually wants to…to…get beyond the grievances that led people to take up arms and wants to put the society back together, it can forgive crimes against itself. For example, after the Civil War, the United States enacted an amnesty for the Southern rebels who had fought against the Federal government. I think that was an appropriate amnesty. It was part of the process of reconciliation. But I think that if people who commit horrendous crimes say, “Okay, now I amnestied myself and no one can hold me to account”, that isn’t the same sort of thing.

Heffner: Yes, but you also deal with amnesty in a sense as a kind of blackmail. The quest…

Neier: Yes.

Heffner: …for amnesty.

Neier: Yes. Well it’s somewhat like terrorism. The terrorist seized hostages and says, “If you don’t give in to my demands, I’m going to kill the hostages”. And that puts everybody in a very difficult position because on the one hand you wan to protect the life…the lives of the hostages. On the other hand, you know that if you give into the demands of the terrorists you’re going to inspire further acts of terrorism. And a consensus has developed, internationally, that we really can’t give in to the demands of terrorists. That the best way of stopping terrorists is not to yield to their demands, and it’s a very difficult choice to be made. But I think it is a choice that we have to make. I think it’s the same with amnesties in this respect. You get militaries that hold power in various countries. They commit terrible crimes. They then issue an amnesty for themselves. They leave power. A democratic government takes over and then the military says to the democratic government, “If you repeal this amnesty we’re going to seize power again, we’re going to abort this new democracy that has been created”, and that puts a civilian government in a very difficult position. But is also means that the military anywhere in the world can hold democratic governments hostage much in the way the terrorists hold hostages.

Heffner: I want to switch to the question of our knowledge of, as a people, our familiarity with the concerns that you express in this book…

Neier: Umm hmm.

Heffner: And indeed the degree to which our news apparatus in this country participates in helping people understand what’s necessary for the quest for justice, as you call it.

Neier: Well, I suppose our news apparatus tends to be at its best when the United States is in some way involved some place. If we’re not involved directly as a country, then the matter is of much less significance. And so because there were always calls for us to get involved in Bosnia, and ultimately we did get involved…we led the NATO bombing that ended the Bosnia war. I think we learned quite a lot about Bosnia. On the other hand, Rwanda was not a place where we were involved. Our government was very intent on becoming involved. The United States had been hurt by what took place in Somalia not long before the Rwandan genocide. And I think as the genocide was taking place, there was relatively little coverage of it in the American media and I don’t think many Americans were, were very aware of the genocide as it was taking place.

Heffner: That feeds upon itself, doesn’t it?

Neier: It certainly does. Now, or more recently we had President Clinton going to Rwanda, making a brief stop at the airport, apologizing for the non-involvement, in effect saying, “Never again”. But I think if the circumstances were to be repeated, and if it were a place in which the United States had not been involved historically and if the political forces at work at that time, again, militated against our involvement, I would think that once again the news media would not pay tremendous attention to what has…what has taken place. I think they would cover it. But I think Americans generally would be unaware of the repetition of a…of a great tragedy.

Heffner: At this table, representatives of the media have said in recent years, “Well, we don’t cover what goes on around the rest of the world quite as much because it’s not all that important a) and b) not very much is happening”. That’s why we give more and more pages in news magazines and newspapers, etc., to entertainment news, if you want to call it that. What’s your own sense of where we as a people, generalizing, are in terms of the notion, for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for me, too.

Neier: Well, I have difficulty in answering that question because it seems to me that sometimes the news media do cover things and Americans do get involved and other times, more often, things are ignored. Lots is happening around the world, but the media pay little attention to it and they sense that there isn’t going to be a great deal of public interest. I suppose that the most important factor is whether there is a political leadership in the United States that says that we do have concerns with terrible things that are happening in a distant part of the world. And when one has political leadership of that sort, then the news media will pay attention. Unfortunately, if things go wrong, the political leaders are likely to suffer as a consequence, and that frightens others from getting involved. Somalia, I think is an excellent example. President Bush made the decision to intervene in Somalia after he was defeated for re-election. It was Thanksgiving 1992 when he made the decision to go in. At that moment he was a lame duck President. During the election campaign he had been under attack for focusing internationally, for not paying attention to the economy, and I think that hampered him in dealing with international affairs. So then he made the decision to go into Somalia. And then there was enormous American media coverage of what took place in Somalia. And then we had the horrifying episode in which, I think it was, 18 Marines were killed in Somalia, and the body of one Marine was dragged through the streets…

Heffner: On television.

Neier: …on television…the image of that was appalling and I think that was a very large factor in the decisions subsequently by President Clinton to avoid getting involve din Bosnia for as long as possible. Certainly not to get involved in Rwanda. And to avoid many other international disasters.

Heffner: Does what underwrites…undergirds, I should say…your concerns…is it best summed up with that hoary quotation, “for whom the bell tolls?”

Neier: I suppose…that’s an appropriate way to sum it up. But I don’t think many people ultimately believe that it tolls for them. I don’t think they see their own stake in things. I believe they can be appealed to. I believe that the altruistic concerns of Americans are no less than they ever where. But I do think that political leadership is all important.

Heffner: Well, we’ve talked about the press and its role. And I can’t help but ask you whether your ACLU era concerns about free speech have to any extent at all been modified by hate speech, by what you write about here of the use of the free airwaves, or the airwaves at any rate to stimulate vicious actions.

Neier: Yes well, if I had to confront the question of the Nazis marching in Skokie again and were asked again, “would I defend their right to do so?” I would say yes. And I would say that what I have learned about hate speech elsewhere in the world has, if anything re-enforced that view and at the same time I would say that some of those who have been involved in that speech elsewhere in the world should be prosecuted. Now, now that may sound like a contradiction.

Heffner: Oh come on now, it is a contradiction.

Neier: No, I don’t think it is, in this respect. I think that the reason it was so important to defend free speech for the Nazis of Skokie is that America has a very strong commitment to freedom of speech, and all may speak in the Untied States. And it was enormously important to maintain that commitment and say that it even extended to those who were as hateful, as repugnant as the Nazis. I think in the context of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda where hate speech played a very powerful role in the crimes that took place, the circumstances were exactly opposite to those in the United States. That is, the government controlled the media of communication. And the government only allowed one point of view to be heard, and that one point of view fomented hate. And the fomenting of hate in those circumstances was enormously powerful. If there had been many other voices that were heard at the same moment, it would not have had the same impact. It was essential in those circumstances to break the government monopoly on the power to communicate. And in a circumstance where hate is disseminated by the government and the government shuts down every other possible means of communication, no other point of view can be heard, I think that those who propagate the hate speech with the direct result of inciting the, the crimes that took place, should be prosecuted.

Heffner: You know, my students in my seminar at Rutgers some years back gave me a tee shirt with the quotation from the Areopagitica “Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open…

Neier: Yes.

Heffner: …encounter”. Because I would quote Milton…

Neier: Yes.

Heffner: …so often.

Neier: But that’s a free and open encounter…

Heffner: And…

Neier: …and that’s crucial.

Heffner: …but in our country there…many of us have come to feel that literally, effectively, to use that word again, the fee and open encounter is not to be found in quite the same way it was found, let’s say at the time of Skokie.

Neier: Well, we still have more of a free and open encounter there than virtually anyplace else. And I would do everything in my power to preserve the freedom and the openness of those encounters. And that means even granting rights to participate in that encounter to the people who want to do me harm directly. I wrote a book about the Skokie case and I called it Defending My Enemy. These people were my enemies; these were the people who spouted the ideologies of those who tried to kill me. But I though I was safer in circumstances where the freedom and openness of the encounter could be preserved for all. And it seems to me Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia demonstrate the horrendous dangers of only allowing one point of view to be heard.

Heffner: Now let me put the question in another way. To any extent at all have you changed in the twenty years since you were most involved with ACLU matters? Your thinking about free speech matters?

Neier: I would say that I have shifted in some measure. I’ve shifted in the sense that it seems to me that what applies in one circumstance may not apply in a radically different circumstance. And I think that I’ve become more conscious of the need to examine the context in which speech takes place. Let me use one example in the United States.

Heffner: In one minute remaining.

Neier: Okay. Well, it’s the campaign finance issue. The ACLU equates contributions or expenditures with speech. I think the context has demonstrated that that doesn’t have the validity that the ACLU claims.

Heffner: Unfortunately, the Supreme Court makes the same claim.

Neier: Well, the Supreme Court made the claim in an ACLU sponsored lawsuit a good many years ago. I hope the U.S. Supreme Court revises its opinion.

Heffner: You think there’s some likelihood that the union will?

Neier: I’ve tried to be persuasive and it hasn’t worked.

Heffner: Aryeh Neier, thank you so much for joining me on THE OPEN MIND.

Neier: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.