Crimes Against Humanity


In a recent commentary in The Guardian on the legacy of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, philosopher Judith Butler writes,

“By writing about Eichmann, Arendt was trying to understand what was unprecedented in the Nazi genocide – not in order to establish the exceptional case for Israel, but in order to understand a crime against humanity, one that would acknowledge the destruction of Jews, Gypsies, gay people, communists, the disabled and the ill. Just as the failure to think was a failure to take into account the necessity and value that makes thinking possible, so the destruction and displacement of whole populations was an attack not only on those specific groups, but on humanity itself”.

At this historical juncture, for Arendt, it became necessary to conceptualise and prepare for crimes against humanity, and this implied an obligation to devise new structures of international law. So if a crime against humanity had become in some sense “banal” it was precisely because it was committed in a daily way, systematically, without being adequately named and opposed. In a sense, by calling a crime against humanity “banal”, she was trying to point to the way in which the crime had become for the criminals accepted, routinised, and implemented without moral revulsion and political indignation and resistance”.

Do you agree, like Arendt, that a crime against humanity is not the product of an exceptional moment in history but, rather, the ever-present possibility for any society that stops thinking critically? Can you provide examples from currents events that may prove or disprove Arendt’s argument?




This dispute between Verovšek and Arendt reflects a larger dispute in the literature on the ultimate purpose of international courts: should the main purpose of international courts be to deliver justice, or should courts become vehicles of social reconciliation?

For Arendt, it would be preposterous to demand from a court to encourage social peace in a society simply because courts have only one purpose: to deliver justice. If it were not so, Arendt would argue, judges would become social engineers whose aim is to bridge differences rather than establishing who is guilty of a crime from those who are not.

For Verovšek, instead, justice is not a value in itself; justice is true to itself only when it becomes a tool for social transformation. What is the point to establish who is right from who is wrong if the outcome of this activity is that to generate only more hatred in a society? It would be paradoxically better not having justice if this means peace.

What is your stand on this issue? Do you think that ICTY was up to its mandate because it delivered justice and contributed to the establishment of international human rights regime or, instead, the ICTY was a partial failure because its decisions have not healing Bosnian society in the long term?

References : Troy, E. ( 2022) LESSON 3 : 3.4 HANNAH ARENDT AND THE JEWISH HOLOCAUST HR/CC 325 OC Crimes against Humanity Retrieved, from MyLearning Space.

Troy, E. ( 2022) Lesson 5: 5.5 THE ICTY: SUCCESS OR FAILURE? HR/CC 325 OC Crimes against Humanity Retrieved, from MyLearning Space.

Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, pp. 161-162

Hannah Arendt’s challenge to Adolf Eichmann

This article is more than 10 years oldJudith Butler

Robertson, G. (2013). Crimes Against Humanity: The struggle for global justice. New Press. Pp. 476-483

The lessons of the ICTY for transitional justice

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