Review Essay

Justice Delayed

Why International Law Still Matters

In This Review

East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”
East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”
By Philippe Sands
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, 448 pp. Purchase

Two years ago, when Syria’s death toll stood at 250,000, the United Nations, no longer able to verify the data, stopped counting the dead. Today, the death toll has likely reached half a million. In Aleppo, government forces shell homes and markets. On September 19, Russian or Syrian airplanes bombed a UN humanitarian aid convoy carrying food, medicine, and supplies to the besieged city, where more than a third of all casualties are children.

In Syria and across the region, international law seems all but irrelevant. Genocide and crimes against humanity routinely go unpunished. In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has resorted to chemical weapons, torture, and starvation as a tool of war. In Iraq, fighters from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) have rounded up and executed thousands of Yazidis. And in Yemen, Saudi Arabian jets have reportedly attacked hospitals. 

International law often gets a bad rap; it is difficult to enforce and relies on dense and technical language. Yet the world would be far worse off without it. Without the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević would never have faced charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Without a tribunal established by the United Nations and Sierra Leone, former Liberian president Charles Taylor would never have been apprehended in 2006, nor convicted six years later of crimes against humanity. And without a similar tribunal in Cambodia, established in 2003, Kang Kek Iew, Nuon Chea, and Khieu Samphan, three leaders of the Khmer Rouge, may never have faced justice.

It is impossible to know how many lives international criminal law has saved. Yet these rules still remain exceptional features of an international system in which states fiercely guard their sovereign prerogatives, including the right to use force in self-defense without authorization from the UN Security Council. Because international prohibitions that have real impact remain unusual, it is worth investigating the origins of the ones on genocide and crimes against humanity. In East-West Street, Philippe

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