Book: Writing History in Intl Criminal Trials


Writing History in International Criminal Trials (2011) published by Cambridge University Press asks: Why do international criminal tribunals write histories of the origins and causes of armed conflicts? Richard Ashby Wilson conducted empirical research with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and expert witnesses in three international criminal tribunals to understand how law and history are combined in the courtroom. Historical testimony is now an integral part of international trials, with prosecutors and defense teams using background testimony to pursue decidedly legal objectives. Both use historical narratives to frame the alleged crimes and to articulate their side’s theory of the case. In the Slobodan Milošević trial, the prosecution sought to demonstrate special intent to commit genocide by reference to a long-standing animus, nurtured within a nationalist mind-set. For their part, the defense calls historical witnesses to undermine charges of superior responsibility, and to mitigate the sentence by representing crimes as reprisals. Although legal ways of knowing are distinctive from those of history, the two are effectively combined in international trials in a way that challenges us to rethink the relationship between law and history.

Richard Ashby Wilson is the Gladstein Chair of Human Rights, Professor of Anthropology and Law and Director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut. He is the author or editor of numerous works on human rights, truth commissions, and international criminal tribunals, including Maya Resurgence in GuatemalaThe Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South AfricaLow Intensity DemocracyHuman Rights,Culture and ContextCulture and RightsHuman Rights in Global Perspectives, and Human Rights and the “War on Terror.”