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Hispanic American Historical Review 80.1 (2000) 217-218
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Radical Evil on Trial. By Carlos Santiago Nino. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Notes. Index. xii, 220 pp. Cloth, $35.00. Paper, $17.00.
Radical Evil on Trial takes its name from Immanuel Kant's work, defining those crimes against human rights that are so grand that no punishment can suffice. These crimes, often committed by governments, call for action. The book is a personal testament of Carlos Santiago Nino, a scholar who was a major participant in Argentina's program of retroactive justice following the ouster of the military regime and its "dirty war." In many ways, this is a very personal document, partly autobiographical: it tells of his involvement in the democratization process and in battling for human rights, detailing his work with President Raúl Alfonsín in creating a basis for trying and punishing perpetrators of state-sponsored terrorism. Yet the book is more. Nino places the Argentine experience against a backdrop of history, relating it to the Nuremberg trials and to the efforts to define crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia. In the final part of the book, the author goes into the legal, political, and philosophical problems of meting out justice in cases of human rights abuses. This is a book well worth reading and debating.
The author, a professor of law in Buenos Aires, left the manuscript with friends from Yale, where he often taught. Shortly thereafter, he died in Bolivia, where he was consulting on its new constitution. As a result, the book was posthumously edited and published. Nino was a passionate crusader for human rights, searching for the legal avenues to justice, avenues that limit passion but are necessary to prevent the crusade from becoming a new form of repression. The book shows the great difficulty, even for dedicated elected officials, of prosecuting and punishing human rights crimes committed by authoritarian regimes. Often laws or amnesties established by such governments limit the ability to punish those responsible for atrocities. Sometimes difficult choices have to be made if punishment may threaten new democratic governments.
Judicial procedure is important, for democracy is government by the majority, and the majority may value the repression of minorities. Paradoxically, courts based on law and insulated from popular opinion are the final guarantors of democracy. Nino advocates judicial proceedings as a means of cultural learning and advance, the "educative effect" of trials. He is strongly nation based, trying to find out how postauthoritarian governments can consolidate democracy following military regimes. Such an approach assumes the primacy of national sovereignty.
This position seems a weakness in the analysis, given the growing body of international institutions of justice that proscribe national governments and declare that no nation, authoritarian or democratic, has a right to abuse its citizens, and if it does, the international community has a responsibility to intervene. There are times when national governments cannot bring criminals to justice.
A reviewer could pick apart the book: some weaknesses in editing, several layers of themes, various biases. But these are irrelevant. This is an intensely moral book by a man committed to justice and the end of human rights abuses. It should be in every [End Page 217] library. It would be an excellent text for a seminar on politics and morality. The book has a place in courses in Latin American history, in politics, in philosophy, and in law. It is both an important record of the Alfonsín government's efforts to bring justice and a significant discussion of the inherent problems of justice itself.
Wilber A. Chaffee
Saint Mary's College of California