This morning I attended two panels at the ongoing American Society of International Law Conference. The first was “The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals,” which refreshingly did not simply rehash the formation of the International Criminal Court but dealt with the meatier issues of how to decide whom to prosecute, what kind of justice to pursue, etc. The panelists, all academics who had played various roles associated with, for example, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, discussed precisely the issue that most interests me: how to draw the line between law and politics. If you overshoot and try to prosecute thousands of perpetrators of unspeakable crimes, spread across multiple countries, your political support will collapse. If you amnesty everyone, there is no justice. Tough decisions have to be made such that there is some justice, which is better than no justice.
One interesting anecdote from this first panel involved the quixotic attempt by Col. Luke Lea and a motley band of doughboys to capture Kaiser Wilhelm at the end of World War One. The panelist who told this story – which was relevant because the plan was to prosecute the Kaiser as a war criminal – misnamed Col. Lea as having been a Texan, when anyone worth his salt knows that it’s “Luke Lea of Tennessee.”
(Ok, ok, the only reason I knew this factoid was because when I interned for former Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) over a decade ago, I was charged with writing an essay on Lea as part of a project to document the lives of all Tennessee senators. Lea was a one-termer who, upon losing the Democratic nomination after the passage of the Seventeeth Amendment – direct election of senators – volunteered for the Great War.)