David Scheffer


On his book All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals

Cover Interview of January 31, 2012

The wide angle

All the Missing Souls explains for the general reader atrocity crimes in the modern understanding—genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—and the unique law that frames these crimes in the tribunals’ jurisprudence, which I introduce as atrocity law.

You will emerge from the book knowing not only the true character of each major war crimes tribunal but also how they compare with each other and the human story behind each one.

While there are many books that relate the terrible atrocities that occurred in Rwanda, the Balkans, and west Africa during the 1990s, as well as Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime, All the Missing Souls tells the story of how legal theories about justice were activated to bring the perpetrators of mass crimes to justice in freshly conceived tribunals after the long drought of the Cold War for such politically sensitive endeavors.

All the Missing Souls is about discovering the right formula to confront monstrous evil in the courtroom—in ever-changing international circumstances.

Consider the challenge in the early 1990s:  Mass atrocities, leadership perpetrators, usually an ongoing and vicious armed conflict or at least a potentially resurgent one, a destroyed or failed court system, unwilling political leaders, and a skeptical international community much more focused on the peace or war equation of the conflict itself.  That was the scenario facing me in so many atrocity zones.  Cambodia was different only in that the atrocities had long ended, but the infrastructure was lacking and political landmines were all over the place.

I was not starting from scratch—there had been the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunals decades earlier.  But mine was a very different challenge under far more complex circumstances.  This would not be victors’ justice, although some have viewed it as the powerful imposing justice upon the weak.  Modern international justice is no simple code of criminal procedure either.  The quest for justice meanders back and forth between international and domestic courts.  Yet the search for evil aimed for the civility of the courtroom and in the growing resolve that removing war criminals from politics and military leadership would make a difference.

I also provide insight into how Washington failed to confront genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and at Srebrenica in 1995, and how we failed to capture some top indicted fugitives of the Yugoslav Tribunal during my watch as the top war crimes envoy.  But I learned key lessons that shaped different outcomes in Kosovo in 1999 and in Sierra Leone in 2000 and in the building of the International Criminal Court.

I was the Ambassador to Hell, but also the Ambassador to Hell and back.  In my more optimistic moments, I thought of myself as a carpenter of war crimes tribunals.  These courts would be the international community’s frontal assault on leadership impunity, and by the end of my watch it was much harder to make the case for immunizing masterminds of atrocities from justice.