Knowing what we know now: international crimes in historical perspective

Historians argue that unfaithfulness to the categories used by people in the past or attributing a contemporary concept to a historical event is senseless. Labeling past deeds as war crimes or crimes against humanity is, in their view, anachronistic since these terms were not available to the agents themselves. It is also moralistic since the unavailability of these concepts in the past prevented contemporaries from judging reasoning in terms of current values, norms and beliefs. The purpose of this project is to find out whether criminologists are necessarily culpable of ‘senseless anachronism’ when they use contemporary concepts to describe or explain historical international crimes. And what if lawyers who apply contemporary legal standards when judging acts that were committed in the past are also guilty of anachronistic reasoning and, therefore, a-historical moralism? In order to answer these questions we will need to consider whether anachronism is always ‘senseless’ (and ‘senseless anachronism’, therefore, a pleonasm) and whether every form of anachronism inevitably implies a form of a-historic moralism.

For more information contact: Willem de Haan

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