Commentary

The Butchers of Bucha will never face justice. That’s the lesson of history | Opinion

True justice only comes when perpetrators admit to their acts and lay out for courts and for history the crimes they committed

Damage in Kyiv, Ukraine, from the Russian invasion. A residential building destroyed

KYIV, UKRAINE – FEBRUARY 25: A residential building damaged by a missile on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Yesterday, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with Russian troops invading the country from the north, east and south, accompanied by air strikes and shelling. The Ukrainian president said that at least 137 Ukrainian soldiers were killed by the end of the first day. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

By Karl Qualls

Don’t be fooled by the righteous indignation of politicians decrying the slaughter of civilians in Ukraine. They pledge greater sanctions and diplomatic aid, and they even promise war crimes trials. But there will be no justice.

Evidence is being collected and a series of trials will likely take place, but what we will see will be another hollow response to brutality.

In the wake of the Holocaust, the victors carried out the well-documented Nuremburg Trials. Few were brought to justice, and typically only leaders and central figures, not the tens of thousands required for mass murder on that scale. Moreover, many countries, including the United States and the Vatican, were actively helping Nazis escape Europe to find refuge elsewhere and avoid prosecution.

We said, “never again,” but it has happened repeatedly.

The savagery Bosnian Serbs meted out against their Bosnian Muslim neighbors—shelling and sniping civilians in cities like Sarajevo and the murder of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica—also brought no justice. Again, international courts brought a handful of men to trial, convicting some key leaders like Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, but most perpetrators still walked—and continue to walk—the same streets as their victims.

So why do I say there will be no justice for Bucha? First, Russia, like the United States, does not recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court, which also does not try defendants in absentia. The United States has not turned over its citizens to face charges in the Hague, and I highly doubt that Vladimir Putin will soon grow a conscience. Thus, evidence will be collected, charges issued, and perhaps trials in other courts will even lead to convictions, but Russian soldiers and politicians likely will never lose their freedom.

Justice does not come from international bodies that the perpetrators and their media mouthpieces can simply delegitimize through claims of bias or revenge.

There is another more important reason there will be no justice for Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, and all the other locations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Justice does not come from international bodies that the perpetrators and their media mouthpieces can simply delegitimize through claims of bias or revenge. We see this clearly in Serbia and Republika Srpska today, where the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are denied daily and the criminals hailed as heroes.

KYIV, UKRAINE – MARCH 08: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after a chemical warehouse was hit by Russian shelling on the eastern frontline near Kalynivka village on March 08, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russia continues assault on Ukraine’s major cities, including the capital Kyiv, after launching a large-scale invasion of the country on February 24. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

True justice only comes when the perpetrators themselves admit to their acts and lay out for courts and for history the crimes they committed. It is then much harder to deny some foreign court has its fingers on the scale of justice. It also provides insight into the motivation of the perpetrators and allows countries to begin to understand, and not just know about, the crimes.

In South Africa and Rwanda, we have seen this happen. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa finally began to bring some closure to decades of brutal Apartheid discrimination as White perpetrators, in return for amnesty, told about the crimes they and their state committed.

The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted a few dozen of the ringleaders of that genocide but did little to come to terms with neighbors killing neighbors.

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It was the gacaca, or community-based, courts where millions of the rank-and-file perpetrators told their stories in front of their neighbors and their victims. Some people were acquitted, some convicted and released, others sentenced to jail terms. These hundreds of thousands of trials, often in the open air, were not perfect and fell short of international legal standards, but the airing of the truth is what helped to bring some closure and brought far more killers to justice.

Of course, no hostile country invaded South Africa or Rwanda. Therefore, the greater justice seen in those two countries will not help Ukraine.

Russian soldiers and leaders will not tell of their crimes, and in the short term it will likely be illegal in Russia for them to do so. They will not go to Ukraine and testify in front of their victims. They will not be deported from Russia to stand trial at an international court.

Just as “never again” is an illusion, Dr. King’s assertion that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is no comfort. Justice delayed is justice denied. In the case of the butchers of Bucha, justice will be both delayed and denied.

Karl Qualls, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where he teaches about genocides, mass violence, refugees, and Russia and Ukraine. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @prof4russia.

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