Kjell Anderson is a researcher at the Transitional Justice Program, Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. He is the coodinator of holocaust and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam.
“I think to me justice – in the context of genocide, crimes against humanity and mass atrocities – justice to me is about the restoration of moral frameworks. In some way justice represents an affirmation of the worth and dignity of human lives.
“I think I was interested in these things before I realised I was interested in them. I’ve been drawn for a long time to situations of grave injustice. Those things have always attracted me, and I’ve always felt a certain sense of outrage at those situations. So I think I’ve always been focused on those things and interested in them before I actually realised there was this thing called genocide and that there was such a thing as international law and international humanitarian law and all these related fields. I think I got involved in it incrementally over time.
“I lived in Rwanda in 2007. I lived there partially because I was really interested in genocide, but living there obviously was a powerful experience in terms of recognising that many of the views of genocide are caricatures and they’re very overly simplistic. I think that just made me much more interested in trying to get beneath the surface and doing research on this. Going forward, I want to continue researching this problem, which is an immense question. But I’m also interested in the flip-side of perpetrators, which is why some people help other people and why some people act as rescuers and why other people do nothing and why other people perpetrate.
What makes perpetrators perpetrate
“Because I’ve approached international justice from different angles, in some ways I’m a commentator on justice issues and I follow them. I study them and I analyse them. But on another level, I’m also researching the causes of mass atrocities and genocide. Basically what makes perpetrators perpetrate. So I think one of the things that’s most interesting to me is also the intersection, or even disconnect, between the reality of how genocide and crimes against humanity happen and the way they are addressed in international courts.
“So I’m interested in the full spectrum of people’s responses to these very extreme situation of an ongoing mass atrocity. I am also engaged in the intersection between courts and the social reality of mass atrocities. I think that by bringing together juridical and social scientific perspectives we can start to understand this thing called transitional justice. This is the focus of my current work at the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies.
Perpetrators are often presented as monsters
“The understanding most fundamental to this discussion is that people perpetrate for various reasons. That’s something that seems very obvious, but in public discourse it’s not presented in that way. Perpetrators are often presented as monsters or people who have some sort of inborn malevolence, which I think isn’t the case. It might be true for some perpetrators but not for most perpetrators. If you look at genocide or any of these mass atrocities, they are obviously mass crimes, which means that they have a massive number of perpetrators and a massive number of victims.
“They’re also political crimes, so they’re committed pursuant to political goals and policies. So perpetrators are placed within that context. So their decision, and they still have a decision – as to how they participate or whether they participate in the crime – is based partly on situational factors and also on personal factors in terms of where they’re coming from. Because not everyone responds to the same context in the same way. For a lot of perpetrators, I can say they perpetrate without even deciding to perpetrate in a way. They perpetrate because it’s the path of least resistance in a sense. In a society where genocide is occurring, genocide is generally seen as, in some way, a positive thing. Something that is either required by the state or accepted by the state.
I think a lot of perpetrators of genocide perpetrate genocide without genocidal intent
“I think this is really the crux and the disconnect between the law and the reality of how atrocities happen in the real world. Because when you have something like genocidal intent, you’re trying to prove that no reasonable trier of fact would have a different interpretation. So you’re essentially trying to prove that there is no other possibility other than that they had this genocidal intent, which in some ways is also consistent and often linked to motive, to a hateful motive.
“So I think in reality to try and locate and prove this genocidal intent is an extremely difficult thing to do. I think a lot of perpetrators of genocide perpetrate genocide without genocidal intent, which is maybe a counter-intuitive or controversial thing to say. I would even wager to say that most perpetrators, or at least many perpetrators, don’t have genocidal intent. So, in other words, they might commit acts which contribute to this collective enterprise of genocide, but they do it for highly personal reasons.
“So I think that’s something that courts have difficulty grappling with. And also the fact that the mindset of individuals is a messy place. The brain is a messy place. I think that people might think one thing one day and the next day they might think another thing. I don’t think it’s such a linear and consistent thing.
Courts by their very nature are somewhat unnuanced
“I think that courts by their very nature are somewhat unnuanced and binary in terms of saying that something is either black or white. But I think that the real world is obviously a much more complicated place. The law has this purpose of trying to attribute responsibility to specific individuals for specific crimes. So, in a sense, it needs this clarity and it needs this very narrow focus. But the very narrow focus doesn’t always accord to the complexity of the real world. So, to some extent, I think that’s inherent in the nature of courts. Perhaps it could be better, but I think that problem is always going to be there.
“There are a lot of platitudes that come out of international courts and international lawyers. Often they’re not really connected factually or empirically to anything. I think courts have an important role, but a lot of the claims that are made in terms of what courts can actually do are untested claims and false. I do think that one of the roles of courts is to partly help re-establish this moral framework by saying that there are certain things that are wrong. That there were people who were treated wrongly and that there are people who should be punished for that. I think that’s a very important role for courts.
“Obviously international courts like the ICC are, first of all, very small and very limited in relation to the immense number of people who have been either victims of mass atrocities or perpetrated atrocities in some way. So the solution obviously needs to be much bigger than that, and I think courts don’t always do a good job addressing these other facets of perpetration.
“Bosnia is an interesting example of this because the only convictions on genocide we’ve had in international courts are pertaining to what happened in Srebrenica, and this is a bit confusing to a lot of people, I think, because there were atrocities across the rest of Bosnia, and sometimes the courts have said that the atrocities occurred but there is still a failure to prove them in terms of individual authors. So I think that courts in some ways address the individual level, albeit imperfectly, but they don’t necessarily deal that well with the collective level or the question of writing or rewriting history. I think they do something in that regard, but not nearly enough to resolve things after mass atrocities.”
Photo: Niklas Jakobsson / Justice Hub