Retroactive Trials and Justice

Seamus Heaney’s moving words remind us that we live in an extraordinary time when, at sites of grave injustice ranging from the halls of government of Argentina and South Africa to the killing fields of Bosnia and Rwanda, “The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme.” Writers have attempted, in very different ways, to come to terms with the swelling of the tide of justice. For example, the philosopher Alan Rosenbaum, in a recent book about the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, argues that virtually every person implicated in the Nazis’ genocidal assault on Europe’s Jews should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. His uncompromising position is “that not bringing suspected Nazi criminals to trial is flagrantly immoral and a serious assault on the basic values of civilization and on the conception of a democratic, rights-based society.” For Rosenbaum, moral factors always trump “rebuttable considerations like time and resource expenditures.” Rosenbaum’s dismissal of the practical stands in striking contrast to the approach taken by Carlos Santiago Nino’s Radical Evil on Trial. The late Professor Nino’s work is, in essence, a painstaking assessment of the practicality of retroactive justice. Nino traces the pragmatic pursuit of justice in Argentina and a number of other nations as each struggled to replace an oppressive regime with a popularly chosen successor. In doing so, he provides insight into the nature and likely prospects of contemporary efforts to secure justice around the world.