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The Fog of War Crimes

The seminal tribunals for prosecuting atrocities committed by the Axis powers during World War II were both born in and riven by Cold War politics and the victors' national self-interest. Yet for all of their flaws, both trials showed that the monumental challenge of fairly prosecuting senior officials for high crimes is worth pursuing.

NEW YORK – If there’s one thing that unites virtually everyone with respect to the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, it is that other people’s views are distorted by “double standards.” The belief that one party is being held to a different measure than others underlies many of the disagreements that have resonated from each conflict to contort global politics.

Just last week, for example, the provisional order of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on South Africa’s claims that Israel is guilty of genocide was widely interpreted through the lens of double standards. Such accusations plague not just Israel and Hamas, or Russia and Ukraine, but also the United States and its Western allies, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and even institutions of higher learning.

But while the accusation of double standards cuts across many spheres of public life – from sexual and racial equality to sports and bathrooms – it has particular resonance in international criminal justice. The authority of all justice systems, which depend on the public’s perception of their fairness and impartiality, is vulnerable to charges of moral hypocrisy.