On the Responsibility of States

Francois-Rene Rideau fare@tunes.org
Fri, 20 Aug 1999 18:57:05 +0200

When we hear news, when we learn history, we too often face the reality
that most crimes go unpunished, and that the people who govern us
are not held responsible for their deeds. Except for the Nurenberg trial
and its retroactive take on "crime against mankind", no mass criminal
regime was ever judged, not even the much worse communist regimes.
So there comes the question: what can we do about it?

[Jump to last four paragraphs to skip a boring recapitulation
of a well-known problem]

Should we or not prosecute the United States
for the many crimes they committed, from the genocide of indians
to killing hundred thousands innocent people in Hiroshima
for the sake of arms-testing, to triggering a useless war in Kosovo?
Should we or not prosecute the French Republic for the many cruel
killings of people it did from religious wars to revolutionary wars
to colonization of Africa and Indochina?
Should we prosecute the Khmer Rouge for killing millions of Cambodians,
or is this a "strictly internal affair"?
Is the Vietnamese Socialist Republic, who "only" killed tens or hundreds of
thousands of Cambodians when imposing its colonial regime
(after chasing the Khmer Rouge) liable because it is a foreign State?

Are these crimes too old, or too recent?
Are current States not to be held responsible for their past crimes,
because they are too old, and not to be held responsible for their current
crimes because they are not old enough?
Are people not to be held responsible as long as they are in power,
and their successors not be held responsible either,
because they did not were not the head honchos (or honchos at all)
at the time the crimes were committed?
What is the prescription for "crime against mankind"?
Doesn't the Nurenberg jurisprudence make it
a retroactively prosecutable crime that requires no victim to stand up?
Don't the recent retrocession of goods of jewish victims
to jewish organizations (not to the long-deceased victims)
make a precedent that it has no time limitation?
Or is it to be believed that only jews are to obtain justice,
when they are not quite the biggest victims of the century
in either number, proportion or horror?

Now, of course, there are problems with obtaining justice.
Nobody fought and won a armed war against communism,
so who is to constitute the court against it?
What about Chinese, Vietnamese, or North Korean communists?
What about all the small dictatures
that the western countries support all over the world?
And when the powers-that-be are themselves the criminals, who is to be judge?
We cannot even have a "national reconciliation committee"
as they had in South Africa, when the crimes are international;
and even less when whole nations were destroyed, as done by Stalin
or by the american colonists, and there is no one left to reconcile with.
When most victims are long dead,
and the survivors had to invent a new life,
who is to receive compensation?
When the main culprits are dead,
and there only remains their accomplices, lackeys, or heirs,
who is to be prosecuted?
Are States as a whole to be held responsible
(as seems the case with the retrocession of jewish goods),
or only the people composing them?

The problem is indeed difficult, but it should be tackled.
Either governments are to be held responsible for their predecessors,
and then we should prosecute most or all governments in the world,
and seek at least recognition of those crimes, rehabilitation of victims,
and destitution of criminals remaining in power
(Milosevic being but a petty criminal as compared
to Chinese, Cuban, Burman or Sudani governants).
Or they are not. And maybe things are not so bad.

For if governments are not to be held responsible
for the crimes of their predecessors,
why should they be responsible for their debts?
Has life less value than a dollar? than one thousand dollars?
than one million dollars? than one billion dollars?
than one thousand billion dollars?
What is the price of human life?
If governments have no accountability for the deeds
of their predecessors (or of themselves) that concern massive bloodshed,
why should they be accountable when it comes to money?

For instance, if the current Russian government isn't accountable
for the crimes of the former Soviet government,
then it shouldn't be accountable for its debts, either.
This has profound implications:
it means that whoever lends money to a dictature
will have no money returned when the dictature eventually wears off.
It means that dictatures will no more find any bank to support them
in the long term. It means that they will have 

So the rule should be, given any government,
either it is accountable or it is not.
If it is accountable, sue it and obtain justice from it.
If it is not, then beware than neither will be its successor,
so shun dictatures least you don't care about what your money
will become in two decades, for your dictature may be gone before that,
and your claims of credit with it.

Either way, we win, if only we can force jurisprudence
from international courts: either we obtain reparation from crimes,
or we deprive dictatures from all their financial credit.

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