The Curious Case of Singapore’s BIA Desertion Trials: War Crimes, Projects of Empire, and the Rule of Law
22 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2019
Date Written: July 25, 2019
This article studies a set of war crimes trials that dealt with the contentious issue of deserting British Indian Army soldiers and were conducted by the British colonial authorities in post-Second World War Singapore (BIA desertion trials). Though the British intended for these trials to facilitate the return of British colonial rule, these trials resulted in to unexpected acquittals and non-confirmation of sentences. While seemingly obscure, these trials illuminate important lessons about rule of law dynamics in war crimes trials. By applying British military law as a ‘back-up’ source of law when prosecuting “violations of the laws and usages of war”, these trials contravened the rule of law by retrospectively subjecting the Japanese defence to unfamiliar legal standards. However, by binding themselves to a pre-existing and relatively clear source of law, the British were constrained by the rule of law even as this empowered the Japanese defence. This article’s findings also speak to broader debates on the challenges of developing a universally legitimate international criminal law, by provocatively suggesting that, from a rule of law perspective, what is most important in a body of law is its clarity, accessibility, and comprehensiveness rather than its source or its purported ‘universality’.
Keywords: international criminal law, war crimes trials, Second World War, Singapore
JEL Classification: K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation