Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Justice delayed: Cambodian trials

Three decades after a Vietnamese invasion unseated the most murderous regime in the past half century, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, trials for a few high-level Khmer Rouge functionaries have finally begun. A good background article appears in the current Harper's magazine, and the New York Times offers good ongoing coverage,including articles about the limits of the tribunal, lower-level KR functionaries, and, most recently, the apology by SL-21's notorious commandant, Duch.

One key question in all this: what is the purpose of these trials, and who benefits?

Is justice 30 years delayed still better than no justice at all, especially since the KR's leader, Pol Pot, has been dead for some years? Is a trial that is deliberately limited to a very small number of high-ranking officials actually going to offer 'justice' to those whose direct suffering was due to lower-level functionaries? Is it even possible to hold a just and complete trial when the current government is run by former KR functionaries themselves?

Or is the purpose of the trial not justice at all? Is it intended to assuage the guilt of the Western nations that stood by while the KR did its worst, and then continued to recognize the KR regime as the official regime of Cambodia after the Vietnamese invasion/coup? And if so, might it not be better for the average Cambodian if the money spent on the special court were spent, for example, on improving the overall justice system of the country?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. I think the trials are important and necessary, but I think one needs to be aware of their inherent limitations, as well as of the trade-offs implicit in the decision to spend a lot of money on a special court that is going to judge just a handful of people.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The International Criminal Court in action

After much dithering, the International Criminal Court finally issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's President, Omar al-Bashir. Those who opposed such a warrant have argued that this warrant will reduce Bashir's willingness to negotiate a solution to the Darfur problem and thus make matters worse. The ICC argues (not unreasonably) that its mandate is to pursue international justice, and potential political spillover effects ought to be solved by the international community.

A good discussion of the quandary, with participation by the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, appears in a Riz Khan show (Al Jazeera) from last September, available on Youtube. Not surprisingly, Al-Bashir's government strongly protest the warrant; it has also retaliated against international humanitarian organizations active in the Darfur region.

On the one hand, this action demonstrates how little Al-Bashir really cares about his supposed constituents, all his protestations notwithstanding. On the other hand, it also provides ammunition to those who argue that the indictment is a bad idea. A useful analogy here is to the issue of negotiating with hostage takers. Al-Bashir is essentially using his own population as hostages: threaten him, he says, and many of the hostages will die.

Despicable though such a threat is, it cannot simply be ignored. However, those who advocate heeding it (and not issuing an arrest warrant, for example) tend to ignore a key feature of this crisis: the past few years have shown that the 'hostages' are dying at a depressing rate anyway.

The real choice is not between saving lives (giving in to Al-Bashir) and pursuing justice (not giving in), but rather between pursuing justice at the probable expense of some lives, and not pursuing justice at the known expense of many of those same lives. By this point in the Darfur crisis, any claim that the ICC action is likely to make things considerably worse seems tenuous (and perhaps disingenuous).

Freeman Dyson and global warming

This week's New York Times magazine has a long and interesting article about Freeman Dyson, best known as a brilliant physicist, but lately more controversial as a skeptic on global warming. Some of Dyson's ideas about global warming were published last year in the New York Review of Books, which also published some the responses that followed.

Dyson's skepticism appears to be two-pronged. First, he thinks that the science of global warming remains incomplete; too much of it, he thinks, relies on models that we know to be imperfect. The complaint that excess reliance on models is problematic is not unreasonable; but Dyson ignores the many separate pieces of evidence that all point to a similar conclusion without requiring complex models — see, for instance, Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

This brings us to the second prong of Dyson's concern: he thinks that the human impact of global warming will be comparatively minor, and that any major problems can be addressed by human ingenuity. In the New York Times article, he notes that China may be a terrible polluter, but lots of Chinese are joining the middle class, which ought to be worth something.

Fair enough, but we are talking about global warming, not Chinese warming. And those in the Maldives whose lives and homes are threatened by rising water levels will surely not be enthusiastic about those new middle class Chinese. Similarly, human ingenuity combined with human wealth will probably cushion most Americans from possible bad effects of global warming. But that cannot be of much comfort to regions in Africa where global warming may be contributing to accelerating desertification.

Dyson's skepticism has libertarian overtones: don't get the government involved on a large scale, wait and see how serious a problem is before doing anything about it, and chances are people will come up with their own solution anyway. What I find puzzling about this is that he has spent much of his career arguing about the dangers of nuclear weapons — an area where similar libertarian-type arguments could be made. Why should those arguments apply to global warming but not to nuclear weapons?