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A History of Political Trials

From Charles I to Charles Taylor

John Laughland

The modern use of international tribunals to try heads of state for genocide and crimes against humanity is often considered a positive development. Many people think that the establishment of special courts to prosecute notorious dictators represents a triumph of law over impunity. In A History of Political Trials, John Laughland takes a very different and controversial view. He shows that trials of heads of state are in fact not new, and that previous trials throughout history have themselves violated the law and due process. It is the historical account which carries the argument. By examining trials of heads of state and government throughout history – figures as different as Charles I, Louis XVI, Erich Honecker, Saddam Hussein and Charles Taylor – Laughland shows that modern trials of heads of state have ugly historical precedents. In their different ways, all the trials he describes were marked by arbitrariness and injustice, and many were gross exercises in hypocrisy. Political trials, he finds, are only the continuation of war by other means. With short and easy chapters, but the fruit of formidable erudition and wide reading, this book will force the general reader to re-examine prevailing opinions on this subject.
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20 The Punishment Ethic in International Relations


An explosion in national and international ‘justice’

The story told by this book may begin in the seventeenth century but it is overwhelmingly a twentieth- and twenty-first-century one. Apart from Charles I and Louis XVI, the criminal law has been used to adjudicate acts of state only since the end of World War I. As we have seen, there was a peak in these prosecutions after World War II and then a lull. The tempo picked up after the end of the Cold War and accelerated dramatically in the first decade of the twenty-first century, as international criminal law became a fashionable and, above all, lucrative growth industry: Rwanda’s ‘Gacaca’ trials cost $50 per suspect and tried about 1.3 million people, no doubt in very questionable circumstances. But over the same period, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda conducted mammoth trials of 75 Rwandans, many of which lasted over a decade, at a cost of $20,000,000 per suspect. By the same token, the International Criminal Court had consumed $1 billion during the 12 years of its existence up to 2014 ($83 million per year or over $1.5 million per week) and yet had by then concluded only two trials. As a result, whereas there had been only thirty criminal trials of heads of state for acts of state in the three centuries from 1649 to 2008, when Saddam Hussein was executed, no fewer than fifteen new heads of state were indicted or tried in...

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