Jus Humanis Winter Forum: A Conversation with Jonathan Power, Journalist and Author

By Farai Chikwanha, Jus Humanis Public Relations and Social Media Manager, and Jasmina Drekovic, Jus Humanis Board Member

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) closed its doors in The Hague in December 2017.  Established in 1993 by a U.N. Security Council Resolution, the ICTY bore the monumental task of bringing justice and truth to a region ravaged by a war which began two years before, and only ended two years after, the ICTY was formed.  During its 24 year history, 90 individuals were sentenced, 19 acquitted and 13 referred to the countries in the Former Yugoslavia for trial over the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the customs or laws of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.  On a broader scale, the ICTY was instrumental in developing both international humanitarian law and international criminal law, including the important principle of rape as a weapon of war.  By indicting the former Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milošević, and the former Bosnian leader, Radovan Karadžić, the ICTY upheld the principle that there was no governmental or military ranking high enough to escape the reach of the law.

The work of the ICTY and its legacy are subjects covered by Jonathan Power, an internationally acclaimed journalist and fellow resident of Lund, in his latest publication Ending War Crimes, Chasing the War Criminals. This book discusses not only the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war, but also those committed in other corners of the world, from Cambodia to Chad and to Chile. Jonathan spoke about his book at its launch organised by the RWI and Jus Humanis during the Jus Humanis Winter Forum.  On the final day of the Winter Forum, Jonathan joined a panel including, Dr. Iryna Marchuk of Copenhagen University, Dr. Mark Klamberg of Stockholm University, and Jonas Nilsson, a Senior Legal Officer at ICTY, to discuss ICTY’s legacy in greater detail.  After the panel, I sat down with Jonathan Power to discuss his book, his career and his views on one of the most prominent international criminal tribunals in modern history. (This interview has been edited for clarity)

FC: I’d just like to begin by getting an idea of who exactly Jonathan Power is.  How did you go from a master’s degree in agricultural economics to being an acclaimed journalist featured in prestigious publications.

JP: When I go back in my life’s history, I started far away from journalism, when I was a volunteer in Africa, and I wanted to do my master’s in agricultural economics in Wisconsin, and I did.  And then I went on Martin Luther King Jr’s march in Selma, as just part of the crowd, when he was fighting for the Voting Rights [Act], which gave African-American people a guaranteed vote.  I had made some friends and contacts with MLK, and when he came north to Chicago for his first northern campaign, I went to work for him with my new wife and a new baby.  We lived in Chicago, but my wife wanted to return to England, and I wanted to stay on.  The plan had always been to go back and work in Africa.  That’s why I studied agricultural economics.  But to cut a long story short, because I’d worked with MLK, I started to get interviews on the BBC.  They didn’t know about me, but I knocked on their door and told them who I was.  One thing led to another, and I was asked to do a big documentary on black power, and step by step, I became a journalist without really knowing it.  I never had an ambition to be a journalist.  I started my career writing about Africa, about the black people in America and MLK’s non-violence, and it went from there.  When I was 32, I was given a foreign affairs column in the International Herald Tribune, which is probably the most influential newspaper in the world.  But then four years ago, after 150 years of publication, the New York Times bought it, and just slotted in their own people.  So now I syndicate my column, and I write books.  I’ve written all sorts of books, a history of Amnesty International Penguin published 10 years ago, and a book that looks at the great political issues and foreign policy, I look at ten of these issues around the world.  All my books have had great success.  I’ve travelled the world, and still do.  I’ve done long, full page interviews with leaders, presidents, prime ministers and so on, who were really the icons of our age.  These all supplement my weekly column.

FC: On the topic of your book, what exactly got you interested in war criminals?

JP: I’m interested in human rights and have been all along.  So obviously, if you’re interested in human rights, you notice that war crimes are the extreme version of the abuse of human rights.  That is the reason I wanted to write a book about war crimes.  I think my book is very original because many people have written about individual situations like Rwanda or Cambodia and Saddam Hussein, etc, and many people have written about the ICC and authorities in international law, but nobody has pulled the whole thing together into one volume.  Even those who have been written about Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and Guatemala, have not talked about Western war criminals in the same breath.  I wrote about Robert McNamara, who was the Minister of Defence under President Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, who was the Chief Foreign Policy Advisor to Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general who defeated Arab armies twice then became P.M.  So I tried to emphasise not just Tutsis in Rwanda or Pol Pot of Cambodia, but right at the heart of the West, we have war criminals, but we don’t consider them.  Rwanda, of course, prosecuted its war criminals in a special U.N. court, as was the case in Cambodia.  Both are affiliated with the ICC.  But there has been no effort to take any of these Western guys to court.  So the Westerners get off scot-free and perpetrators in the rest of the world are prosecuted.  To me, this seems wrong, unfair and unbalanced.

FC: Going to the ICTY, the subject of the panel discussion at the Jus Humanis winter forum, what would you say we as people have to learn from the tribunal?

JP: What we learned was that, at last, a long time after Nuremberg, which was the trial of the Nazi leaders in Germany, the whole idea of applying international law to war-time activities was resurrected and reapplied.  We should be proud that this was done, even though it took too long and there was too big a lapse of time.  This does not mean that wars will be avoided in the future.  Although we have the laws, still people do wrong.  Some people are deterred by the laws, but we’ve always had war criminals.  So even with the ICC, some political leaders may be deterred, and others may take a chance.  It’s not a magic wand, but I believe it’s a big step forward for mankind.  It is because of the success of the ICTY, along with the tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, that the ICC was established.

FC: Would you say the ICTY did a good job in convicting criminals and bringing justice to the region?

JP: I think it did a very slow job, and it took 20 years before the real, big-time war criminals like Karadžić and Mladić were arrested and tried.  The people who had to do the arrest moved very slowly.  There was a period when, although the Western countries had created the court, it really wasn’t given support for a long time.  One must be thankful that it did get its teeth into the problem eventually.  Karadžić was convicted early last year and Mladić at the end of last year.  The former got 40 years in prison and the latter was sentenced to life in prison, but this is 20 years after the war ended.  Whereas, if you look at the Nazis in Nuremberg, on the other and, the trials happened immediately at the end of WWII.  No time passed, really, between the end of the war and German capitulation, and the establishment of the tribunal.

FC: Now that the work of the ICTY is finished, do you believe that writers are capable of writing of war criminals so that their memory is retained in the minds of the public and we don’t forget the atrocities they perpetrated?

JP: I would hope so, but I fear it’s not a popular subject in the newsroom.  So at newspapers and television stations, there are not many journalists who are interested and prepared to push their editors.  Of course, when there is a big trial of somebody particularly atrocious, like Mladić, serious press do focus on it.  the conviction of Mladić in November got quite a bit of press.  [The ICTY is perhaps best known for the events which occurred during its last trial: the melodramatic and gobsmacking decision of the former Bosnian-Croat military commander, Slobodan Praljak, to commit suicide in the courtroom.  Following the tribunal’s pronouncement that it would uphold his 20 year sentence for war crimes, he downed a vial of poison and uttered the words, “I am not a war criminal.  I oppose this conviction.”] Compared to the actual fighting, compared to the actual killing, compared to the actual genocide, the amount of space given to the court in column inches is relatively small.  So people are not being educated as they should be.  The media are falling down on that.

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