On 14 August 2018, The Mekong Review published an essay I wrote about my search in the mid 90’s for Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh, author of The Sorrow of War.  That essay, Looking for Bao Ninh, is reproduced below.



I took my first trip to Southeast Asia in 1994. I went to Phnom Penh to volunteer, teaching trial advocacy skills for the Cambodian Defender Project. Showing up unannounced, I was told to come back a month later. So I headed north to Hanoi. Vietnam had opened its doors to foreign investment and tourism. It was an exuberant time, full of optimism. Continue reading “LOOKING FOR BAO NINH”


Book Review – RISE AND KILL FIRST: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

Book Review – RISE AND KILL FIRST: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, by Ronen Bergman, Random House, 2018, $35.00, 725 pages.

Assassinations … have an effect on morale, as well as a practical effect. I don’t think there were many who could have replaced Napoleon, or a president like Roosevelt or a prime minister like Churchill. The personal aspect certainly plays a role. It’s true that anyone can be replaced, but there’s a difference between a replacement with guts and some lifeless character.

Meir Dagan, Chief of the Israeli Mossad (p. xix)

The distinguishing mark of a manifestly illegal order … is that above such an order should fly, like a black flag, a warning saying: ‘Prohibited!’ Not merely formally illegal, not covered up or partly covered … but an illegality that stabs the eye and infuriates the heart, if the eye is not blind and the heart is not obtuse or corrupt.

Judge Benjamin Halevy (p. 274)

Targeted killings, assassinations, summary executions and reprisal killings; acts of assassination without parliamentary or public scrutiny; unrestrained killings and orders to down passenger airlines with innocent civilians; strikes against foreign diplomats; two separate legal systems – one for ordinary citizens and one for the intelligence community and defense establishment; bombings of hotels, buildings, and residences; preemptive strikes, kidnappings, and killings of political leaders; invoking “state security” to justify a large number of acts that could be subject to criminal prosecution and long prison sentences; massive amounts of unavoidable or unreasonable collateral deaths; deceptions, and lies to the Prime Ministers, including cover-ups and willful blindness by Prime Ministers themselves; killings of scientists, sympathizers, and poisonings; disregard for practice directives for state-sanctioned assassinations; manifestly unlawful orders and reprimanding those who refused to follow such orders; use of proxies to carry out assassinations, torture, and degrading interrogations; killings of unarmed prisoners, and much more.


Indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians; targeted killings; car bombings and using other explosives to cause maximum death of innocent civilians; suicide bombers and proxy fighters financed by antagonistic neighboring countries; acts causing maximum and sustained terror; provocations to draw military responses and loss of innocent civilian lives; rocketing of residential areas, use of civilians as human shields, building of nuclear reactors, and threats of annihilation; kidnappings of soldiers to torture and kill or to swap for hardened imprisoned militants whose aim upon release would be to continue their terrorist acts and killings, hijackings, car-bombings, senseless executions, deceptions, lies, broken promises, and blatant denials of knowing that some on their side committed atrocities while claiming to be pursing peace, and much more. Continue reading “Book Review – RISE AND KILL FIRST: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations”


Part II – Panel Discussion on The Peacemaker’s Paradox: Pursuing Justice in the Shadow of Conflict

Prosecutorial Discretion & The Interests of Justice: what, when, how

In my previous post I reviewed Priscilla Hayner’s The Peacemaker’s Paradox: Pursuing Justice in the Shadow of Conflict, giving it a superb rating and recommending it to anyone working in the field of transitional justice – from mediators to civil society and human rights advocates. As I noted, Hayner draws from her wealth of experience and from her in-depth and critical examination of past efforts by various actors in the peacemaking and transitional justice chain, including international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts – most notably the International Criminal Court (ICC) – to see what has worked or failed in peacemaking. Presenting a clinical analysis of the what, how, and why of these past examples, Hayner shows that during peacemaking efforts, process matters, intrinsic to which are timing, strategy, and context. This is particularly relevant when the ICC Prosecutor exercises her authority: depending on the strategy and tactics adopted, she can be instrumental or detrimental to the peacemaking process. Continue reading “Part II – Panel Discussion on The Peacemaker’s Paradox: Pursuing Justice in the Shadow of Conflict”


Book Review – The PEACEMAKER’S PARADOX: Pursuing Justice in the Shadows of Conflict

There is no peace without justice; there is no justice without truth.

Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni

Recently, I participated in a Flash-Colloquium titled: Justice, Truth and Peace. The topic was inspired by the sage Professor Bassiouni – a giant in the field of international humanitarian and human rights law. Sadly, he left us on 25 September 2017.

The presenters were given a maximum of three minutes to speak on one of the six permutations of these three words: Truth, Justice, Peace, Peace-Justice, Justice-Truth, and Truth-Justice-Peace.

About three minutes before the start of the colloquium, I was asked to make a presentation on peace within the context of Professor Bassiouni’s refrain. I agreed, though I knew I would have to speak off-the-cuff. I began feeling uneasy when I started hearing the presentations, which ranged from the philosophical to the theoretical to the sublime (poetry). What did I really know about peace? Continue reading “Book Review – The PEACEMAKER’S PARADOX: Pursuing Justice in the Shadows of Conflict”


BOOK REVIEW – A Conviction In Question: The First Trial at the International Criminal Court

The Court and this trial were different. It was a Court for nearly all places and all times promising something most everyone in the world wanted badly, even if some state authorities remained wary. It was to bring tyrants to account, punish them according to their crimes, and give pause to others with tyrannical pretentions.

It was not just what kind of justice would be rendered for Lubanga. The Court itself was on trial.… Lubanga’s atrocities spoke for themselves, or so it appeared. They were well known in his country. They were well known abroad among the international organizations that had been forced to intervene to protect his victims, and they were well known among human rights organizations whose reporting brought his crimes to word attention. Something would have to go woefully askew for the trial to end up questioning the severity of the crimes. And yet, as the trial unfolded, the crimes became strangely and increasingly beside the point, buried under a spectacle of legal combat between counsellors who seemed more concerned with prevailing in the courtroom than worrying about what atrocities had been committed in Ituri and how to assign responsibility.

A Conviction In Question: The First Trial at the International Criminal Court, by Jim Freedman, University of Toronto Press, 2017, $32.95, 219 pages, pp. xiii, xvi-xvii

After reading Mark Kersten’s review of A Conviction In Question: The First Trial at the International Criminal Court by Jim Freedman, Professor Emeritus at Western University Ontario’s Department of Anthropology, I was intrigued. Could I have been so off on my assessment of the Lubanga trial? Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW – A Conviction In Question: The First Trial at the International Criminal Court”


BOOK REVIEW – Incitement on Trial: prosecuting international speech crimes

[T]he man who prompted the deed was more guilty that the doer, since it would not have been done if he had not planned it.

Aristotle Rhetoric (2004:26)

By and large, there is not a great deal of social science research to support the claim that hate speech or inciting speech has a directly causal relationship to violence, and this mitigates against modes of liability like instigating/inducing/soliciting which include the elements of direct causation. There is, however, extensive empirical evidence indicating that denigrating speech has (often unconscious) conditioning effects on listeners and while not attaining the level of a sine qua non, may contribute to a set of conditions jointly sufficient to cause crime.

Incitement on Trial: prosecuting international speech crimes, by Richard Ashby Wilson, Cambridge University Press, 2017, Paperback $29.99, 356 pages, p. 17.

Professor Richard Ashby Wilson’s Incitement on Trial: prosecuting international speech crimes is an outstanding text on a frequently misinterpreted, if not ill-used, area of international criminal law – the crime of incitement. What distinguishes Incitement on Trial from many other texts on substantive international criminal law is that it is based in part on extensive original empirical research.

Before praise and criticism, reader beware: I have known Wilson since he was doing research for his book, Writing History in International Criminal Trials (another gem published by Cambridge in 2011), and had the privilege of participating with two other colleagues in a workshop conducted by Wilson as part of his field research for this text. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW – Incitement on Trial: prosecuting international speech crimes”


Responding to Professor Roman Serbyn re Book Review: RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine

I received a comment on my review of Anne Applebaum’s latest book: RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine, from Professor Roman Serbyn.  Professor Serbyn is an historian, and a professor emeritus of Russian and East European history at the University of Quebec at Montreal, and an expert on Ukraine. He is well known for his books and many articles about Ukrainian history, particularly the Holodomor.  I thank Professor Serbyn for his comment and questions, and respond below. Continue reading “Responding to Professor Roman Serbyn re Book Review: RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine”


BOOK REVIEW: Legal Responses to Transnational and International Crimes – Towards an Integrative Approach

Legal Responses to Transnational and International Crimes – Towards an Integrative Approach, edited by Harmen Van der Wilt and Christophe Paulussen, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017, 301 pages, £90

As a triggering condition for international coordination through the suppression conventions – and thus for what we might call transnational criminal law – transnationality is a relatively vacant concept, probably because it has no obvious general moral or metaphysical content, and surprisingly little attention has been paid to it.

Neil Boister, Chapter 2, p. 33

Turn on the news on any given day and you are inundated with stories about mass atrocities, terrorism, human trafficking, piracy, money laundering, cybercrime, and so on. You hear journalists, politicians, pundits, and occasionally “experts” characterize these crimes as “international crimes.” But are they?

Because these crimes transcend national borders, having – to some extent – an international character, may give the impression that they neatly fit within the ambit of International Criminal Law. Piracy on the high seas is a good example. It most certainly has an international character, and while it has been considered an international crime, it is not in the strictest sense (or as scholars say, “international crime stricto sensu”), if one applies this definition to the “core crimes” prosecuted at the ICC, for instance. The same can be said for terrorism, human trafficking, cybercrime, and so on. It does not mean that under certain sets of circumstances, these crimes – such as cyber-terrorism – would not amount to crimes against humanity, and thus international crimes stricto sensu. Save for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide (and now for some states, aggression), these crimes are generally considered transnational crimes, falling within the ambit of Transnational Criminal Law (TCL) and are punished in national, as opposed to, international courts. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Legal Responses to Transnational and International Crimes – Towards an Integrative Approach”


Book Review – HOLODOMOR: Genocide or Extermination, or Does it Really Matter?

RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine, By Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, 2017, 512 pages, £25.

 First, they took everything from the collective farm storehouse – everything that farmers earned for their “work days” (trudodni). Then they took forage, seeds, and then they went to the huts and took the last grain from the peasants that they received in advance,… They knew that the area sown was smaller, the amount of grain harvested was lower in 1932 in Ukraine. However, the grain procurement plan was extremely high. Isn’t this the first step towards the organization of famine? During the procurement, Bolsheviks saw there was extremely little grain remaining, yet they carried on and took everything away – this is indeed the way to organize a famine.

Sosnovyi, Nova Ukraina 1942 (p. 333)

In 1929, Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, embarked on an agricultural collectivization policy that mutated into the deliberate and determined famine that killed over five million people in 1932-33 in the USSR, nearly four million of whom were Ukrainian peasants. The Holodomor,  as it is known, “a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger – holod – and extermination – mor” (p. xxiv), is the subject of RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine, the latest book by Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Gulag and National Book Award finalist for Iron Curtain.

RED FAMINE is a disturbing and compelling read for anyone interested in understanding the evils orchestrated by Stalin and implemented by his close associates, apparatchiks, enforcers, and, sadly, Ukrainian collaborators, against Ukrainian peasants, intellectuals, and political elites. The horrors Applebaum chronicles in page after page from official documents, private communications, secret speeches, diaries, personal accounts, letters, and even poetry, are mind-numbing. Continue reading “Book Review – HOLODOMOR: Genocide or Extermination, or Does it Really Matter?”


Book Review – The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Corsair 2017, £12.99, 209 pages

In this era of Syrian and Libyan refugees flooding Southern and Eastern Europe to escape war, millions of Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and threats to deport child immigrants in the United States (US), escaping into fiction about refugees seems counterintuitive. However, I am able to report that The Refugees, from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, is just the ticket.

Nguyen, himself a Vietnamese refugee and a professor at the University of Southern California, gives us eight short stories that will grab you in the moment and leave you thinking long after. Knowing there were only eight stories made me want to parcel them out, like a box of fine chocolates. Continue reading “Book Review – The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen”