Accountability for 'Crimes Against the Laws of Humanity' in Boxer China: An Experiment with International Justice at Paoting-Fu
87 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2016 Last revised: 6 Apr 2017
Date Written: March 5, 2016
The birth of international criminal law is typically traced to the post-war prosecutions of Nazi and Japanese war criminals by the Allied powers, when in fact the Great Powers frequently turned to internationalized criminal or quasi criminal forums, as well as the rhetoric of ‘humanity’ and ‘civilization,’ to project power, establish narratives, manage public opinion, express dissatisfaction, and defend humanitarian values in the century after the Napoleonic wars. That these stories have been relegated to a narrative hinterland belies the important role each played in establishing vocabulary for international criminal law and shaping expectations of accountability. The purpose of this paper is to restore one such significant but unexplored caesure; the trial of four Chinese officials before an ‘International Commission’ by the Great Powers in the wake of the inter-religious violence that characterized the Boxer Uprising.
Although the Commission has recently received some attention by a few dedicated historians, it has so far escaped close scrutiny within the international criminal law community. Accordingly, a number of questions about the trial have remained unanswered. What actually happened at Paoting-Fu? Was it fair? Why did this operation, unlike others, result in an international criminal trial? What meaning did the trial have for the belligerents and the communities they represented? What consequences did the trial have for the development of international criminal law?
Drawing on previously unexplored material from state archives, published and unpublished missionary correspondence and military memoirs, and contemporaneous press reports, this paper addresses these questions in four parts. Part 2 of this article first sets the scene by briefly describing the state of the armed conflict in October 1900, then recounts the story of the Commission’s day-to-day operation, culminating in the execution of three Chinese officials. Part 3 sets the trial in its legal, cultural and strategic context, positioning it as an event framed by, among other factors, the concomitant coherence of international criminal law and a shift in thinking about the role of collective punishment in war. Part 4 highlights how the relevant constituencies viewed the trials, and traces the influence of this seminal experiment with individual accountability for international crimes on later efforts to create an international jurisdiction to try the Kaiser in the wake of the First World War. Finally, Part 5 explores the judicial character and fairness of the Commission.
Keywords: international criminal law, international commission, history, war crimes, crimes against humanity, international courts, Paoting-Fu
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