War Crimes. The Scales of injustice. ''Judgment at Tokyo.'' By Gary Bass.  

THE WORLD is still haunted by 20th century crimes so grave that any attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice seems feeble. The trials at Nuremberg in 1945-46 did little to salve wounds left by the Holocaust.

And the Tokyo trials of alleged Japanese war criminals, which lasted two and a half years from 1946-48, have not stopped outpourings of anger across Asia whenever, for example, a senior Japanese politician visits Yasukuni, a Tokyo shrine to the war-dead, including convicted war criminals.

The aftermath of wars has taken on fresh significance with conflicts reging in Israel, Palestine, Sudan and Ukraine. In much of Asia, the second world war, which was followed by tribunals that tried to dispense justice, is still unfinished business. Japan's trials concluded 75 years ago.

In a meticulously researched history, Gary Bass, a professor at Princeton [ and former journalist for  The Economist ] looks at why attempts to produce a shared sense of justice failed.

LIKE NUREMBERG, Japan's tribunal was for the most serious war criminals, those guilty of not just breaking the laws of war but, in addition, ''of crimes against peace'' [ ie, planning the war ].

This was controversial then and remains so. For America, the greatest crime was the attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii and elsewhere in December 1941. But, as aggressors always do. - think Vladimir Putin in Ukraine - the accused always pleaded that they and Japan acted in self-defence.

Even some of the 11 judges from different Allied countries disputed whether Japan's aggression was actually a crime, Radhabinod Pal from India, for example, argued the law lets each country decide what counts as self-defence.

Few doubted that Japanese troops had been guilty of outrageous war crimes, exhaustively covered at the trials, which heard months of harrowing testimony, including about the ''rape'' of Nanjing, China, in 1937 and the Bataan death march of prisoners-of-war in the Philippines in 1942.

The issue with these and other horrors was not whether they were crimes, but where responsibility lay -with the individual soldier, his immediate commander, his general, the prime minister or the man who had appointed the prime minister, Emperor Hirohito.

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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