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

See all articles by W.L. Cheah

W.L. Cheah

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law

Date Written: July 25, 2019

Abstract

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

Cheah, W.L., The Curious Case of Singapore’s BIA Desertion Trials: War Crimes, Projects of Empire, and the Rule of Law (July 25, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3426302 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3426302

W.L. Cheah (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law ( email )

469G Bukit Timah Road
Eu Tong Sen Building
Singapore, 259776
Singapore

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