Conference on Decolonization and Cold War Implications on War Crimes Trials in Asia, 1945-1954

Conference Report: “Rethinking Justice? Decolonization, Cold War, and Asian War Crimes Trials after 1945”, Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”, Heidelberg (organizer: Dr. Kerstin von ), October 26-29, 2014


The first day of the conference began on the evening of 26 October. Kerstin von Lingen, leader of JRG ‘Transcultural Justice’ and principal organizer of the conference, gave an introductory speech where she highlighted how war crimes trials in Asia offered a crucial legal, political, and moral-ideological watershed through which some of the initial contestations of decolonization and Cold War were played out. She argued that the trials should not be seen in isolation, but as part of this broader global politics, and also as an integral stage in the emergence of new universalistic norms of international humanitarian law. Fabian Klose (Leibniz Institute of European History Mainz) suggested that in spite of the emergence of these new norms, the traditional colonial powers (he took the specific examples of Britain and France) were reluctant to accept these standards, since their acceptance would have restricted the potential to use violent force to maintain domination in the colonies in Africa and Asia.

The second day started with a morning session on the International Military Tribunal for the Far East chaired by Annette Weinke from the University of Jena. Barak Kushner from the University of Cambridge presented the first paper arguing that Japanese ideas of justice had developed independently from and prior to the Tokyo trial and not in reaction to it as often assumed. Neil Boister of Waikato University then focused on the issue of opium trade as a war crime at the Tokyo trial, its importance for the Republic of China and for the United States, and the beginning of norm setting as well as a system of international drug control. The next speaker, Beatrice Trefalt of Monash University demonstrated how France used the trial as an opportunity to reframe the history of Indo-China during the war years. Milinda Banerjee of Presidency University, Kolkata, shed light on the position of the Indian Judge Radhabinod Pal towards concepts of sovereignty and natural law, and offered a new way of understanding the famous dissenting judgment he delivered at Tokyo within the broader context of shifting intellectual and foreign policy perspectives in India.

The afternoon session, chaired by Franziska Seraphim of Boston College, opened a series of fascinating case studies from different countries in Asia. Deokhyo Choi from Cambridge explained the ways in which questions of war crimes, the issue of collaboration and war reparations were debated in Korea. Sandra Wilson of Murdoch University continued the focus on Korea by discussing the experience of Korean nationals as defendants in war crimes proceedings in Asia. The opposite perspective was chosen by Dean Aszkielowicz, also from Murdoch University, who presented the Australian government’s policy towards war crimes suspects of Korean and Taiwanese descent. The lively discussion which followed afterwards focused on the culpability of Koreans in war crimes and the extent to which the Allied Powers took the category of colonialism (of Japan in Korea) into account while dealing with the accused.

Continuing with the theme of case studies, the third conference day started with a morning session chaired by Wolfgang Form of the International Centre for the Research and Documentation of War Crime Trials (ICWC, Philipps-Universität Marburg). Wui Ling Cheah of National University Singapore examined how the post-WWII trials conducted by the British military in Singapore dealt with oaths of allegiance. Kirsten Sellars of the Chinese University of Hong Kong demonstrated how the Red Fort Trials in India challenged the premise of treason and established a legal critique of the supremacy of domestic security law and a new perspective on international law. Yuma Totani, University of Hawaii, presented a selection of British war crimes trials where former high-ranking members of the Japanese armed forces were prosecuted on charges of war crimes against civilians in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre. Robert Cribb of Australian National University argued, through an examination of the British trials of Japanese war criminals in Burma, that the Allied war crime trial programme in Asia – which took place in the emerging Cold War struggle between communism and capitalism and the struggle over the future of empire – was driven more by considerations of justice than by mere political strategy in the context of decolonization.

The afternoon session, chaired by Tanja Penter of Heidelberg University, focused on some interesting case studies within the Cold War context and Sino-Soviet war crimes trials policy. Konrad Lawson opened the session by comparing Communist and Nationalist traitor elimination work in 1945-1948. Lawson suggested that a clear-cut dichotomy cannot be maintained between formalized trials and informal or semi-formal popular retribution. Anja Bihler of Heidelberg University shed light on post-war Chinese war crimes trials on Taiwan. The trials on Taiwan took place under circumstances that differed significantly from those on the mainland, as they were held at this extremely sensitive time when the Chinese were fighting for their own legitimacy as the new rulers on the island.

Valentyna Polunina of Heidelberg University spoke about the Soviet bacteriological warfare trial in Khabarovsk (1949). She argued that by establishing a so-called “hybrid” show trial that combined truthful facts with elements of show trial and propaganda, Soviet leaders tried to achieve some geopolitical and ideological goal in the emerging bipolar world. Adam Cathcart of University of Leeds followed with a talk on the role of the Shenyang Trials of 1956 in configuring China’s postwar position and asserting a specifically Chinese communist response to Japanese war crimes. With the Shenyang Trials, the CCP sought to move China beyond gratefulness for the Soviet intervention and on toward a more assertive portrayal of Chinese Communist Party justice. They also exemplified how the government used show trials in the 1950s to undergird public support, serve as instruments of propaganda internationally, and frame a model of Japanese postcolonial guilt.

During the discussions the participants pointed out that there might be more differences between the approaches to war crimes trials in the Soviet Union and the PRC in the post-war period as it has been asserted so far. Moreover, it was emphasized that the context of the Cold War and different course of the decolonization in different parts of Asia played a crucial impact on war crimes trial policies of authorities which replaced the former Japanese Empire.

The fourth day began with a morning panel on Dutch war crimes trials in Indonesia, chaired by Peter Romijn of Amsterdam University. The first paper was presented by Lisette Schouten of Heidelberg University who argued that the Dutch trials in Indonesia were part of the Dutch political-legal attempt to restore their control over the colony.  She offered detailed quantitative evidence to explain how Japanese political-economic structures were taken into account while delivering the judgments.  Esther Zwinkels of Leiden University presented on the collaborator trials in the Netherlands East Indies, suggesting that the creation of different categories and definitions of ‘collaboration’ were part of a pragmatic Dutch effort to restore colonial order. The Dutch decision not to punish Indonesian nationalists like Sukarno who had politically collaborated with the Japanese demonstrates how the trials were integral to the process of politically negotiating with decolonization processes.

The final discussion was again very lively, with opening inputs by Kerstin von Lingen and Barak Kushner, followed by different points raised by various participants in the conference. Some of the main issues raised included: whether the war crimes trials in Asia constituted a deliberate attempt by the old powers to re-impose colonialism, or whether such a policy was subordinate to considerations of higher justice; to what extent was the Tokyo Trial central to the trials policy, or whether the BC trials were equally important but have been unjustly neglected in later public and scholarly discussions; to what extent the trials were ‘Western’, in terms of composition of judges and the nature of legality involved, or whether they did create some sort of supra-Western universalistic standard; and the immediate and long-term legacies of the trials in the changing self-image of the individual participants in the trials as well as of the nations involved.

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