Law Professor’s New Book Examines International Law and War Crimes

Lexington, VA • Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How do you determine an appropriate punishment for a war criminal or a genocidal killer? These questions inform Washington and Lee University School of Law Professor Mark Drumbl's new book, Atrocity, Punishment and International Law, released this April by Cambridge University Press. Drumbl is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor of Law and director of the school's Transnational Law Institute.

In his book, the first major study of its kind, Drumbl rethinks how perpetrators of atrocity crimes should be punished.  After first reviewing the sentencing practices of courts and tribunals that censure genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, he concludes that these practices fall short of the goals that international criminal law ascribes to punishment, in particular retribution and deterrence. This raises the question of whether international prosecutorial and correctional preferences are as effective as we hope.

Drumbl argues that the pursuit of accountability for extraordinary atrocity crimes should not uncritically adopt the methods and assumptions of ordinary liberal criminal law.  He calls for fresh thinking to confront the collective nature of mass atrocity and the disturbing reality that individual membership in group-based killings is often not maladaptive or deviant behavior but, rather, adaptive or conformist behavior. 

Drumbl concludes by offering concrete reforms. He urges contextual responses to atrocity that welcome bottom-up perspectives, including restorative, reparative, and reintegrative traditions that may differ from the adversarial Western criminal trial. 

A widely recognized expert in international law, Drumbl brings years of 'on the ground' experience working in international criminal tribunals to his analysis.  "It is time for international criminal law to reappraise its effectiveness and consider a broader response to atrocity that, although open to formal criminal trials, also includes the customs of the countries involved, as well as reparations, reconciliation, community service and the reintegration of perpetrators into society," says Drumbl. 

The arrival of Drumbl's book has been praised by other leading international law scholars:

"Drumbl will set the debate on this topic for a very long time to come. Rarely has an author been able to bring together sophisticated philosophical theorizing, detailed empirical examination, and plausible practical guidance in such a lively and persuasive manner. Lawyers, philosophers, sociologists, and political theorists will learn much from this excellent book." -- Larry May, Professor of Philosophy, Washington University in St. Louis, and Research Professor of Social Justice, Charles Sturt and Australian National Universities.

"Building upon a decade of rich experience in international criminal tribunals, Mark Drumbl takes a perceptive and challenging 'second generation' look at the prosecution of atrocities, demolishing the shibboleths and battering the conventional wisdoms. It is full of insights into the way forward, as we struggle to make sense of the new institutions." --William A. Schabas, Professor of Human Rights Law, National University of Ireland, Galway, and Commissioner, Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2002-2004)

"This book explores the relationship between atrocities and international criminal justice in a way that no other book does. It is a major contribution to the field, and as such, it is one of those books that should be read by those interested in international criminal justice and human rights." -- M. Cherif Bassiouni, Distinguished Research Professor, DePaul University College of Law, and Honorary President of the International Association of Penal Law

"In this bold and creative book, Drumbl challenges bedrock assumptions of international criminal justice. He argues that international lawyers have gone too far in their pursuit of international standards and their push for criminal prosecutions. Drumbl's embrace of a broad range of responses to atrocity—exemplified by Rwanda's gacaca panels—make this book both provocative and refreshingly skeptical about the supremacy of international law in the face of human evil." -- Allison Marston Danner, Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University Law School

Atrocity, Punishment and International Law is available through booksellers, including electronically from and

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