The best books for understanding war crimes trials and international justice

Judith Armatta Author Of Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic
By Judith Armatta

Who am I?

I am a tired activist and recovering attorney. My professional focus on violence and humanity’s response to it began when, as a seven-year-old, the nuns at my Catholic school showed us newsreels of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. This led me to adopt as my life’s guiding principle Julian Beck’s admonition “to redeem our share of the universal cruelty.” After 20 years in the U.S. Violence Against Women Movement, I absconded to the former Yugoslavia and found myself in the middle of a war during which I ran a war crimes documentation project (memoir in progress). I later reported on the international war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic.


I wrote...

Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

By Judith Armatta,

Book cover of Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

What is my book about?

Twilight of Impunity is based on the 300-plus dispatches I wrote while monitoring the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the first such trial since Nazis faced justice at Nuremberg. The book brings to life the stories of survivors, makes complex legal theories understandable, and argues that the trial created a framework for other international war crimes trials and the permanent International Criminal Court. I show how Milosevic attempted to highjack the trial and use it as a vehicle for his propaganda about the Balkan wars and his role in them. For all its flaws, the trial provided a step forward in the quest for international justice as a replacement for impunity and the eternal cycle of hatred and violence. 

The books I picked & why

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East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

By Philippe Sands,

Book cover of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

Why this book?

I loved this book. Legal concepts were clearly explained. Personal stories carried the book to its end. Sands shows how two men created laws to name and punish unimaginable crimes, and another who developed a system giving those crimes the patina of legality through the personal lives of four people born in Ukraine around the same time: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, who conceived of “Crimes Against Humanity” and “Genocide” respectively; Hans Frank oversaw the mass extermination of the Jews in the Polish territories; Leon Buchholz, the author’s grandfather, whose entire family was murdered according to those laws. The author's grandfather was the only survivor having escaped to Paris before the Final Solution was put into effect.  


Prelude to Nuremberg: Allied War Crimes Policy and the Question of Punishment

By Arieh J. Kochavi,

Book cover of Prelude to Nuremberg: Allied War Crimes Policy and the Question of Punishment

Why this book?

Kochavi’s book gave me a more complete and nuanced understanding of how the Nuremberg war crimes court came to be, how defendants were selected, and what law to apply. Based on copious research, Kochavi uncovers the inside story of how the Allies ultimately agreed to establish an international court to hold Nazi officials accountable for mass atrocities instead of summarily executing them, which Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin favored. Initial U.S. and British resistance to including crimes against German nationals (extermination of the Jews among them) was overcome by strong public, especially Jewish, opposition.


The Nuremberg Legacy: How the Nazi War Crimes Trials Changed the Course of History

By Norbert Ehrenfreund,

Book cover of The Nuremberg Legacy: How the Nazi War Crimes Trials Changed the Course of History

Why this book?

I found Ehrenfreund’s book compelling because he applied his legal expertise as a lawyer and judge to what he personally witnessed at the trial. His research included numerous conversations with Germans who lived through the Nazi regime. I also valued his insights as they were informed by his personal journey to learn his grandfather’s fate many years after he disappeared into the Holocaust. While Ehrenfreund reveals how U.S. law heavily influenced the law applied at Nuremberg, I found his analysis of the trial’s subsequent influence on U.S. law revealing. For example, Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at Nuremberg and U.S. Supreme Court Justice, was impacted by the racial hatred that underlies the crimes of the Holocaust in Brown v. Board of Education, The U.S. Court’s school desegregation decision.


Justice in the Balkans: Prosecuting War Crimes in the Hague Tribunal

By John Hagan,

Book cover of Justice in the Balkans: Prosecuting War Crimes in the Hague Tribunal

Why this book?

An easily accessible overview of development and internal workings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) up to the first stages of the Milosevic trial. Hagan satisfied my interest in what happens behind the scenes: the struggles, losses, and triumphs of creating the first international war crimes court since Nuremberg and Tokyo. I found particularly illuminating his discussion of how an ICTY prosecution team developed the legal theory, supported by substantial evidence, of rape as an intentional strategy to further the goal of ethnic cleansing, for the first time making it a war crime in its own right. His explication of the tension between diplomacy (which often utilizes amnesty in seeking an end to conflict) and accountability (which seeks justice for victims and humanity) was thought-provoking.


The Sun Climbs Slow: Justice in the Age of Imperial America

By Erna Paris,

Book cover of The Sun Climbs Slow: Justice in the Age of Imperial America

Why this book?

I’m drawn to inconvenient truths and Canadian Erna Paris reveals them in exceptionally readable prose. Paris discusses why it took more than fifty years to establish a permanent International Criminal Court to try war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. She examines the reasons for U.S. opposition to the permanent International Criminal Court established in 2002, identifies U.S. officials who worked to undermine efforts to develop the ICC, exposes the real reasons they did so, and debunks the official position of protecting US soldiers.


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