On Human Rights and Refugees
Professor Martha Minow has written extensively on issues relating to war crimes, refugees and human rights. She discusses these issues, the phone calls that changed her work and why she has stayed at Harvard Law School.
Can you comment on means of prosecuting alleged Iraqi war crimes?
We are at a moment in world history when internal affairs within a sovereign nation are no longer remote from the views of the international community. So there could well be grounds for prosecutions [of Iraqi war crimes] in an international tribunal. However, the U.S. isn’t a member of the International Criminal Court, so it is rather awkward for people in our country to be telling the ICC what it should be doing.
Are you surprised that the International Criminal Court has emerged despite the lack of U.S. involvement?
I think it is always an important and humbling reminder for people in the U.S.--and people in a place like HLS--to realize that we are not the center of the universe. Indeed on the issues of human rights we are not even leaders. So it doesn’t surprise me that these activities are proceeding elsewhere.
As of this interview, the anticipated refugee crisis in Iraq apparently hasn’t materialized. If it does happen, will the U.S. be prepared to handle it?
Until Baghdad is actually taken there won’t be an enormous crisis. But I think there will be one. The U.S. wants to have the military coalition be the face of the humanitarian response. There is some argument for this: It’s part of a strategic way of approaching war and refugee crises, and it certainly makes some sense in a world in which civilian injuries and deaths are no longer the accidental byproduct of war. Yet I think it’s a big mistake to exclude the nongovernmental organizations that actually have experience and knowledge dealing with humanitarian and refugee crises because [these crises] present very particular and difficult issues. So are we prepared? I doubt it.
Do the refugee problems emerging from modern war cause the U.S. and other nations to neglect refugee crises that have emerged from internal situations?
The reasons for western powers to ignore refugee crises around the world are so numerous that one does not have to link the failure to respond to any particular cause. I think that what’s crucial is to build a set of international understandings so that no one nation feels the entire burden of a refugee crisis and so the processes of repatriation and resettlement can be pursued to ensure the protection and safety of those who fled, as well as to respect the needs of the countries in which they find themselves. We are not currently engaged in developing these international sets of understandings and agreements; I think that is to the detriment of the most needy, most desperate people.
Do you think this is solely a characteristic of the current administration?
Certainly it’s not. All of the western democracies have underfunded both U.N. and non-governmental refugee aid organizations. So I wouldn’t single out this administration as being uniquely terrible.
What lessons does your book "Between Vengeance and Forgiveness" hold for today’s world?
When there have been serious violations of human rights, it is perfectly understandable for individuals to try and respond in ways that can be viewed as vengeance. But to do so is to unleash new cycles of violence. This dilemma seems to me only more apparent in our current post-9/11 world. What I struggled to explore in the book are the institutions and collective responses that groups and nations can explore to help people and nations find a path between vengeance and forgiveness. Forgiveness sounds very attractive, but I just don’t think it’s realistic for most people. It has been fascinating to me to watch how the three responses that I focused on become more salient in recent years; that is, international criminal prosecutions, truth commissions and reparations.
In some sense I feel heartened that the possibility of collective responses has grown. People are finding it constructive to deal with the past. Yet given the larger context of international relations right now, I feel very sobered about how slender these reeds are--how much they really deal with retrospective justice and not preventative justice.
Can you say a little bit about your work on the Kosovo Commission?
I received three phone calls after I wrote "Between Vengeance and Forgiveness" that changed the rest of my work. The first one was from Justice Richard Goldstone from the South Africa Constitutional Court, who had been the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He asked me to join him on a commission on Kosovo. For the next three years we held hearings, met with people, governments and NGOs. We issued a report that evaluated the legality and legitimacy of the NATO intervention, the efficacy and lack thereof of humanitarian response and the future status of Kosovo.
The second phone call I received was from Madam Ogata who was then the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. I had never really worked on refugee issues before, but how could I say anything but, "of course"? So I created a team of people at Harvard and at the Fletcher School to explore what we could do to help the UNHCR. We explored the multiple domains in which individuals and communities need to respond after mass violence--they include not just the law, but also things like the arts and economic development.
The third call I received was from a woman who runs a center for abused children here in Boston. She had been asked to consult in Northern Ireland where the rates of spousal abuse and child abuse were soaring. She felt there were some connections between international violence and family violence. After touring her institution, I became very interested in that subject and it became one of the areas of focus in my recent book, "Breaking the Cycles of Violence."
Did you expect your work to become so international?
I majored in history in college and studied international affairs, so this isn’t something that came out of the blue for me. My concern in all of my work has been how can law and other formal institutions create the possibilities of coexisting peacefully. So, in that sense, it’s not surprising that I would turn international. My concerns domestically have addressed violence, but also particularly group relations and issues of equality and inequality. In addition, I’m Jewish. If you’re Jewish and you’ve lived after the Holocaust, it’s hard not to have issues of international human rights, prosecutions for war crimes, how to prevent new genocides, a big part of your consciousness.
You’ve said you never expected to be a law professor for this long. Why have you stayed?
It’s quite true. I became a law professor largely because my original plan to work for the Department of Justice didn’t look as attractive in 1981 as it did in 1980. One of the reasons I’ve stayed this long is that it turned out I loved it. I love teaching. I love writing. And it’s just incredibly gratifying. There’s really no better job in the world if what you care about is ideas and helping young people find a way to pursue their own dreams. And the second reason is that--to my surprise--I found that many of the things I’ve hoped to do, I could do from here. I’ve had terrific opportunities. And now I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.