Book Review – “Crimes Against Humanity” by Geoffrey Robertson

(2000) (Penguin – 512 pages)

Reviewer – Rob Wood

Crimes Against Humanity, by Geoffrey Robertson, is far from a light bed-time read. The famous human rights lawyer attempts a discourse on the history, legality, politics, and implications of human rights since the time of Hammurabi, but focusing mainly on post WW2. In doing so he goes into facets of the various treaties and covenants with a level and detail not often seen in many attempts at similar topics. The emphasis is on the slow progress towards the adoption of human rights standards throughout the world and the progress yet to be made. Robertson pulls no punches in his assessment of the various political intricacies of the issue.

Beginning with a history of human rights, Robertson sets the scene for his observations regarding the topic over the last half-century. He includes everything from the concept of Natural Rights, to the show trials of Joseph Stalin in Russia. His history ends with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN in 1948. From this starting point Robertson explains many of the failures of the world in regard to human rights since this hallmark in its history.

He then goes on to explain, in relatively detailed legal terms, the various rights of the individual. Often the gaining of these rights was contrasted to the manoeuvring of various States on the issue. He gives this resonance through a detailed survey of twenty-first century issues, thus giving it resonance with the reader.

Robertson concedes that the issue of human rights has come ahead in leaps and bounds in the twentieth century, with movements towards holding war criminals accountable for their actions. He later goes onto an account of the creation of the International Criminal Court, again stressing the part played by the expediency of politics over true justice. This is used to highlight his claims of the work yet to be done on the issue of human rights and global justice.

Again to prove his point, Robertson goes on to a detailed analysis of the case of General Augusto Pinochet, who is widely regarded as being responsible for crimes against humanity in his native Chile. Despite the best efforts of lawyers, and seemingly overwhelming evidence, the UK did not bring Pinochet to trial after his brief internment. Robertson regards this sovereign immunity as a barrier to the advancement of global justice.

Despite the rhetoric of Robertson bemoaning the current state of global justice, he takes a positive (but tempered) view of the future. He believes we are entering what he refers to as “The Age of Enforcement.” He cites East Timor as the first war undertaken for humanitarian principles. With the example of East Timor, the advent of the ICC and the slowly decreasing credence put in diplomatic or sovereign immunity, it is tempting to agree with him.

Robertson’s book is a fantastic read for those interested in the inter-relationship of human rights, politics and the law. His style of writing is scholarly and detailed, yet relatively easy to understand. Crimes Against Humanity deserves the highest of recommendations.

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