Monash Law professor: what should we do about war criminals?

18 September 2014

Discussions should to be revived as to how Australia should address the presence of war criminals, according to a legal academic who spent years working on the Slobodan Milosevic trial.
Associate Professor Gideon Boas, now at Monash Law School, was at the time a senior legal officer for the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He spent nine years in The Hague, many of them working on the Milosevic trial.

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His current work encapsulates not only major international forums but also the prosecution of atrocities in an alleged war criminal’s new country of residence. This challenges that country’s willingness and capacity to confront otherwise remote crimes, opening up a range of complex issues that are a focus of Associate Professor Boas’s research.
“I’m interested in these things from a legal angle, which is my baseline training, but also from political, social and cultural perspectives,” he said. “I’m interested in what we prosecute and why, and how that is influenced by a variety of factors.”
As many as 2,000 war criminals from various conflicts are said to be living in the Australian community. Associate Professor Boas said failed attempts to prosecute former Nazi war criminals in the 1980s and 1990s, and the low political capital that this generated, meant governments had become reluctant to engage in debate about how these matters could be tackled.
By comparison, he said, countries such as Canada and the UK had continued to spend money on developing special war crimes units. In 2009, the UK passed retrospective legislation allowing war crimes committed before 2001 to be prosecuted. But the Australian government has so far refused to close similar loopholes in its own legislative framework.
In particular immigrant communities where many people are victims of war crimes, there are varying perspectives on whether sleeping dogs should be allowed to lie, Associate Professor Boas said.
He views such debates as valid in a national discussion about how a country should deal with war criminals.
“But at the moment, the government’s position is that we don’t even want to have that debate because it’s complex and expensive and there’s no political capital in such a conversation,” the Monash Law School associate professor said.
“My research is trying to uncover why this is the case and to make suggestions about what can be done.”

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