Crimes Against Humanity: An Exchange between Larry May/Norman Geras

Editors: Norman Geras (in Democratiya 3) has written the kind of review that an
author can only hope for. The review is crystal clear and gets nearly all of the major
theses and many of the arguments of the book right. And his critical remarks are
apt, indeed I agree with most of the points he makes. Since on-line reviews require
quick responses I will provide only two brief comments on Geras’ wonderful review.
First, it is possible to agree with many of the things that Geras says and not yet give
up on my approach. For Geras argues passionately for a highly intuitive idea, that
there be a regime that would have all serious violations of human rights prosecuted.
I support such an idea. But my book was only focused on one type of international
crime, the crime against humanity. I could, and largely do, agree with Geras that
other crimes, such as his example of the small scale torture of a person by a member
of the police, should also be prosecuted, but disagree with him that this is best done
under the rubric of crimes against humanity. We might have a separate treatment
for torture, as I suggest in my book that does not bring it under the rubric of crimes
against humanity but still makes it an international crime, perhaps because of the
involvement by the State in perpetuating the crime. In my next book War Crimes
and Just Wars, forthcoming, I argue that torture is often best seen as a crime against
humaneness, the main basis of a war crime, not a crime against humanity. Second,
I am surprised that Geras does not give more weight to my various cautionary
remarks about letting us be influenced so much by the plight of the victims that
we forget about the plight of the defendants. Amnesty International similarly is
strongly pro-defendant in the domestic setting but pro-victim in the international
setting. Folks on the left, and I count myself in this group, need to come to terms
with this disparity. My book attempts to confront it squarely and I only wish that
Geras had done so as well. But I wish to end by reiterating that I am very grateful to
Norman Geras for such an intelligent and careful review of my book – more than
an author can hope for today.

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