Date: 19 October 2010
On October 8, the History Department's Patrick Hagopian gave the closing keynote address at "Whose Vietnam?" an international conference at the University of Amsterdam on the cultural and political repercussions of the Vietnam War. His talk was titled "From My Lai to MEJA (the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act): An End to US Defiance of International Law?" It began by pointing to an inconsistency in the half-century following the post-World War II war crimes tribunals and the promulgation of the Geneva Conventions: on the one hand, the spreading recognition of universal judicial standards and universal jurisdiction in the domains of international humanitarian law and the laws of war; on the other, the resistance by the United States government to any encroachment on its sovereignty, including allowing its own citizens to be prosecuted by non-US courts or held up to these international judicial standards.
The particular instance of this disparity that Hagopian discussed was the "jurisdictional void" occupied by former members of the United States armed forces who committed crimes while on military assignments overseas but whose crimes were not detected or investigated until after they were released from the service. According to a 1955 judgment of the United States Supreme Court, there was no jurisdiction in which such veterans could be prosecuted: courts-martial had no jurisdiction over former members of the armed forces; and US domestic courts had no jurisdiction over crimes committed overseas. Thus some admitted murderers (including perpetrators of the notorious My Lai massacre in 1968) escaped prosecution because their crimes were covered up until they were safely beyond the reach of courts-martial.
Hagopian traced the determined but unsuccessful efforts by a small number of US legislators to fill this "jurisdictional void" before it was finally closed by passage of the War Crimes Act of 1996 and the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000. He reviewed the political contexts that explain both the 40 years of failure to close the gap and the domestic and international pressures that finally led to these legislative remedies. The keynote address ended by reviewing the first two prosecutions under MEJA; Hagopian explained why it was as yet difficult to predict from their results (one acquittal and one conviction) the extent to which civilian juries would be willing to second-guess the allegedly criminal actions of troops in combat zones.
Associated departments and research centres: History