Book Review Series: Musings and meanderings from my 2023 reading explorations – Part 4

War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead. The truths are contradictory.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carry (pp. 76-77)

For citizens, garlands of euphonism and a fog of glorious myth shroud th[e] bloody past. The battles that shaped the nation are most often remembered by the citizenry as defending the country, usually in the service of peace, justice, freedom, or other noble ideas. Dressed in this way, the wars of the past justify the wars of the present for which the citizen is willing to fight or at least pay taxes, wave flags, cast votes, and carry forth all the duties and rituals that affirm her or his identity as being one with the nation’s.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies (p.5)

Memory affects us. It shapes our identity, who we are, how we perceive the past, how we view the present, and how we envision and might act in the future. Other than what we personally experience – to which a degree of uncertainty, bias and misapprehension must be taken into account – our memory of past events as our perception of present ones, in no small measure, is based on what we are told. Where the truth lies, assuming there is a truth, depends on who is telling the story, based on what information, from what vantage point in examining the events, the quality of the information, the objectivity of witnesses and their ability to accurately recount, and the intentions of those who write and lecture and promote historical truths as they would have others believe and be influenced by. Having tried my share of small, big, and mega cases, I’ve come to realize that few things are as they often appear. Court judgments may determine the existence of certain facts to satisfy a beyond reasonable doubt finding, but even seemingly correct findings, occasionally prove not to be. Memory, or the unreliability of memory, is partly responsible. When it comes to historical events, especially those that touch us, our memory is at risk of being manipulated – being influenced to see and believe (and thus drilled into our memory) things as told by authority figures, government officials, museums, monuments, memorials, textbooks, and so on. Harking back to my reasons for venturing into this book review series as explained in Part 1, the books reviewed here tie in the theme of memory and war.

MASS GRAVES, TRUTH AND JUSTICE: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Investigation of Mass Graves, Edited by Ellie Smith and Melanie Klinkner, Edward Elgar, 2023, 174 pages

Starting off with a book on mass grave investigations may not seem logical. Considering, however, that one of the reasons why bad actors resort to burying dead civilians and combatants en masse is to hide the evidence, affect the truth, and distort the narrative upon which, among other things, memories are influenced, I thought it fitting.

In just about every war and conflict, there are mass graves. In defending one of the Srebrenica cases at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, I had the opportunity to delve a bit into the vast complexities of mass grave identification. Not only were there mass graves, but at some point, in trying to further conceal the thousands of missing Bosniak (then Muslim) males ranging from mid-teens to 65 and older, the mass graves were dug up and the bodies were reburied in smaller (secondary) graves. Locating the sites was not difficult thanks to the wonders of satellite imagery. Handling mass graves once found proved more challenging. Protocols were needed to ensure some uniformity in dealing with every mass grave, in preserving the integrity of the evidence, and in identifying the dead and cause of death. Not only is the evidence essential for justice and accountability, but also for victims and communities and states in post-conflict transition.

With mass grave investigations being complex and content-specific, and with no uniform approach, identifying standards and modalities based on lessons learned in unearthing mass graves were needed. As M. Cherif Bassiouni observed in a scholarly journal in 2001, “[i]t is beyond logical explanation to find that the UN has […] no protocols for mass grave exhumation or reconstruction of events.” Out of this vacuum nearly two decades later, and after a “two-year long collaborative research project involving multiple experts”, the Bournemouth Protocol on Mass Grave Protection and Investigation was born. MASS GRAVES, TRUTH AND JUSTICE: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Investigation of Mass Graves grew out of this project. Research Fellow Ellie Smith and Professor Melanie Klinkner at Bournemouth University have assembled an all-star cast, offering perspectives and analysis on the multi-disciplinary processes involved in mass grave investigations in places such as Bosnia, Guatemala, Libya, Nepal, and Rwanda. This book punches well above its weight.

HANDBOOK ON THE POLITICS OF MEMORY, Edited by Maria Mälksoo, Edward Elgar, 2023, 407 pages

Memory matters. Collective or social memory matters even more. Politics (and indoctrination) cannot be separated from memory. Interpretations of the past vary. Contested interpretations can range from the mild to the toxic.

The politics of collective or social memory, according to University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Maria Mälksoo, is when various social and political actors use the past for purposes relevant to the present.  “[W]here politics, identity, history, emotions, power, law, and human search for meaning meet and interact,” “politically embattled” with the capacity of being “constructed and constructive” but also prone to “instrumentalization, institutionalization, securitization, and, at times, weaponization.”

A multi-disciplinary theorization of memory politics, HANDBOOK ON THE POLITICS OF MEMORY is rich with insight and perspectives essential to appreciating memory and its use and malleability in constructing historical narratives. In addition to Mälksoo, twenty-six academics contributed to this four-part handbook.

Part I, Concepts and Controversies, discusses identity and ontological security – the links between memory politics and international ethics and law. Part II, Actors and Practices, discusses the various agents and their practices in memory politics – commemoration, memorialization, trauma and victimhood politics, regret accountability, and reconciliation. Part III, Tools and Sites, looks at “mnemopolitical tools and sites” – the use of the art, stage, drama, film, memorial sites, monuments, and diplomacy as part of memory politics. Part IV, Contemporary Cases, examines a selection of case studies representative of three themes (the remembrance of war, the Holocaust, and the imperial legacies) and other examples of “modern ‘memory wars’” (East Asia, Russia, and South America).

The chapters are flavorsome bite-size hors d’oeuvres, giving the reader more than enough of a taste, with a comprehensive source and reference lists should the reader want to explore further. With law, diplomacy, history, and international ethics linked to the politics of memory, international lawyers would defiantly profit from this comprehensive multi-disciplinary exploration of the politics of memory.

SOCRATIC VOICES: Dialogues on Law, Time, and Reconciliation, Bert van Roermund, Edward Elgar, 2023, 160 pages

In SOCRATIC VOICES: Dialogues on Law, Time, and Reconciliation, Tilburg University Law School Professor Bert van Roermund holds seven imaginary dialogues. Of the nine dramatis personae, two come from Rwanda, two from Israel, two from Colombia, one from Russia, and two from South Africa, one of whom is the moderator, referred to for reasons unknown as ‘Socrates”. Philosophers from opposite sides of conflict areas, tolerant and measured, each with their own experiences, understandings, and perceptions, discuss and debate ideas on consequential issues. Recognizing the elusiveness of finding resolutions as if the questions could be simplistically answered, they seek common ground and/or greater appreciation through listening and exchanging perspectives.

Twenty-five years have passed since these philosophers last met. In these Plato-like symposiums they pick up where their discourse had trailed off, reassessing the past, picturing the promises of future. Meanderingly, they cover a range of topics: politics, social ethics, philosophy, human rights, international relations, the challenges to peace work, transitional and restorative justice, refugee policies, military interventions, and memory, and how it relates to past events and shapes the future. “Socrates” occasionally lapses into loquacious asides, subtly dispensing an occasion pearl of wisdom.

Without giving away much, here are the topics discussed:

      1. Confession – repentance – forgiveness – reconciliation. What comes first, what comes last?
      2. Memory and remembrance – remembering and commemorating – a past that is never over – and what that may mean.
      3. Restoration of law, restoration of rights and restorative justice – and how to enable people to do this?
      4. Can Politics and law exist at the same time? Can the political system allow the legal order to count against it? In turn, should a legal order allow politics a contrary voice?
      5. What do we sacrifice by engaging with institutions? When it comes to action, is reconciliation possible without institutions? Law as an institution par excellence.
      6. Why reconciliation? A task for moral heroes or a necessity for those who long for inconsolability?
      7. Reconciliation as time beyond time (ultimate unity of all with all) and the end of time as the turning point between the profane and the sacred. “To each their due” as the ritual formula law.

RESEARCH HANDBOOK ON POLITICS OF HUMAN RIGHTS LAW, Edited by Bård Andreassen, Edward Elgar, 2023,499 pages

We can accept as an article of faith that politics impact and permeate human rights activities. The flip side is whether or to what extent human rights law influences and shapes politics. Domestically, human rights are affected, to a large extent, by political-ideological differences. This is most pronounced today in the US on issues such as abortion, immigration, and voting-suppression (passage of voter-suppression legislation frustrating a segment of the polity of franchise). Internationally, influenced by political issues and actors, we see the politicization of human rights institutions – as experienced by the UN Human Rights Council and its predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission.

University of Oslo Professor Bård Andreassen, along with twenty-four academics and researchers sets out in the RESEARCH HANDBOOK ON POLITICS OF HUMAN RIGHTS LAW to show how the respect, protection, and implementation of international human rights are reliant on three political dimensions – governance, distributive justice, and international relations. With politics being “not just about power, self-interest and domination” but also about the virtuous sense of internal rightness, international human rights law needs political recognition and support to be effective.

The Handbook is divided into three parts: Governance and Institutions, Distributive Justice and Public Policies, and International Politics. The chapters are relatively short. Not all are as satisfying, perhaps because of space. While interesting to those seeking better appreciation of how international human rights law, entwined with politics, shapes and is shaped by politics, for practitioners such as myself, its value is of marginal use. That said, I did profit by plowing through it, even if taxing.

INTERROGATING THE MORALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS, Michael J. Perry, Edward Elgar, 2023, 161 pages

Emory University Law Professor Michael J. Perry sets out in INTERROGATING THE MORALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS to clarify and interrogate the morality of human rights – “the morality embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and/or in other international human rights treaties that came into force since 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted.

In Chapter 1, Perry tackles the meaning of human rights and whether these are moral rights as well as legal rights, whereas in Chapter 2, he asks whether we have reasons to press our governments to conduct their affairs in accordance with the morality of human rights. In Chapters 3 and 4, Perry addresses, respectively, the human right to equality, and the human right to moral freedom. In Chapters 5, 6, and 7, he looks at the implications to the right of equality and privacy as it relates to capital punishment, the criminalization of abortion, and the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage.

In this exquisite little gem, Perry also queries whether universal human rights should include rights against extreme economic inequality (not to be confused with poverty) and against climate change (considered to be a human rights issue). When considering that those least responsible for global warming are the most affected, a right against global warming is not unsound.

Convincingly, Perry accomplishes his aim, illustrating that the human rights, articulated as universal since 1948, represent a global political morality informing how present-day challenges should be resolved as is envisaged in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other treaties.

HANDBOOK ON GENOCIDE STUDIES, Edited by David J. Simon and Leora Kahn Edward Elgar, 2023, 310 pages

We just marked the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Genocide Convention. I was consulted by a couple of potential organizers, thinking of commemorating this momentous milestone. Having worked on cases where genocide was charged, and having written on genocide, I looked around for something fresh, something that did not address the intricacies of the law and how it should be interpreted, or whether the definition or elements of the crimes should be revisited, but rather how genocide is viewed by experts in other disciplines.

I’ve already mentioned in my opening remarks to this post the importance of memory. How mass atrocities are viewed and presented in textbooks, films, music, art, curated in museums, all for the purpose of informing and promoting (not always accurately) such events – even when not strictly meeting (as they must from the legal perspective) the criteria of genocide – is vitally important. My hunt for a multi-disciplinary study of genocide led me the Yale University Senior Lecturer David J. Simon’s and University of Dayton Visiting Senior Scholar-Practitioner Leora Kahn’s excellent HANDBOOK ON GENOCIDE STUDIES. It delivers insightful perspectives even to the knowledgeable.

The contributors, all exceptional experts on genocide in their respective disciplines, address a wide range of episodes (genocides of indigenous populations in the Americas, Africa, Armenia, the Holocaust, Indonesia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, Myanmar, and China based on the premise that genocide studies is “not an academic discipline possessing a common set of tools, methodologies, or even approaches.” Rather, it is a subject matter of multiple approaches from multiple disciplines. Aside from recapping the birth of the UN Genocide Convention thanks to the vision and indefatigable effort so of Raphaël Lemkin, the Handbook on Genocide Studies covers genocide in five parts: history and ideas, international relations, as a social science, in arts and humanities, and in discourse.

When combined and considered in this multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary fashion, the Handbook on Genocide Studies – which purports to be neither a comprehensive survey of genocides nor “a study of canonical genocide and related pathologies of behaviour” – is a rewarding read to anyone interested in genocide human rights, international relations, geopolitics, and public policy.

REPARATIONS IN TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE: A Normative Framework, Fin-Jasper Langmack, Nomos, 2022

A couple of years back, I was asked by the Documentation Center of Cambodia to look into the questions of reparations relevant to the findings and awards by the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Specifically, I was asked to consider whether as a form of reparations the ECCC could/should mandate healthcare to the survivors of the atrocities committed in Cambodia, where effectively the entire country was a crime site with virtually all Cambodians having suffered physically and mentally with long term consequences. A worthy consideration, but one that fell outside the remit of the ECCC. While issue squarely rested with the Cambodian government (being responsible for the healthcare system), realistically, considering its resources, it could not accommodate.

In any event, my research in reparations sparked an interest, so much so, that when I came across Fin-Jasper Langmack’s REPARATIONS IN TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE: A Normative Framework, I thought I would give it a read.  It is dense and comprehensive. A taxing read (most likely a converted Ph. D. dissertation), it is rich will information, data, examples, and insightful minutia that anyone involved in issues dealing with reparations should find interesting and rewarding.

NOTHING EVER DIES: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Harvard University Press, 2016

Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize author of The Sympathizer, whose collection of short stories in The Refugees I have reviewed (here), has profoundly impressed me not only with his elegant prose but also for his ability to deal with memory in his fiction (his sequel The Committed also touches on memory). He was born in 1971 in Vietnam and came to the United States as a refugee. A Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at University of Southern California, he wrote a Ph.D. dissertation dealing with memory, which he turned into NOTHING EVER DIES: Vietnam and the Memory of War.  It is brilliant. To Americans and others, it is the Vietnam War. Some Vietnamese may also characterize it as such. Others see it as the American War against Vietnam. Their perspectives and their memories and their depiction of the war – in literature, art, films, and museums – are as different as night and day. Dealing with the ethics of remembering, the asymmetrical military industries of war, the aesthetics of voices and war stories – and with the powerful memory and just forgetting – this a compelling read, inviting, if not forcing, the reader to view the events and those impacted by them from a perspective and vantage point that provokingly enlightens.

I highly, highly recommend this to anyone seriously delving into the power of memory and how it shapes and often misleads us in appreciating events of consequence such as those discussed in this post. As an added treat, let me also recommend Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, a story of a North Vietnamese soldier who finds himself remembering his past as he is collecting dead bodies after the war has ended (see here for my efforts in tracking him down, such was the effect of reading his tour de force, and seemingly autobiographical, novel).

THE THIRTY-YEAR GENOCIDE: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities 1894 – 1924, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, Harvard University Press, 2019

I end this post with a history book on the (widely accepted) genocide(s) that took place between 1894 and 1924 as the Ottoman Empire was expiring and modern-day Turkey was in the midst of secure its space, brooking no tolerance for non-Turks with national aspirations of their own. The Turkish governments till day does not countenance any claims that mass atrocities fitting the criteria of genocide under the UN Genocide Convention were committed against the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks.

Professors Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi of Ben Gurion University of Negev in THE THIRTY-YEAR GENOCIDE: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities 1894 – 1924 make a compelling case that the Ottomans and their successors unleashed a torrent of killings and suffering against Anatolia’s Christians over a thirty-year period, which cannot be considered as mere isolated instances of unfortunate sequences of events, but rather as systematic, top-dawn, controlled and purposeful bone-chilling pogroms.

As a Greek, I have my views, especially on what occurred in the final days in Smirni (Izmir) in 1922, which the Greeks call the “Big Catastrophe”. I leave it to the reader to draw whatever conclusions from Morris and Ze’evi’s excellent research and scholarship on the historical events during that thirty-year period to draw their own conclusions.

Stay tuned for part five which ends this series.

Don't forget to leave your comments

About Author


Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *