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Reflections on Larry May’s 'Crimes Against Humanity'

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Social Philosophy Today


My reflections here are not so much a critique, as a request for a new eyeglass prescription. Like many of you, I have astigmatism. That means that my two eyes can't bring objects to focus. Pop on my glasses, and the world becomes clear. When I read May's book (which as you know, I greatly admire), and then think about late twentieth-century history, I can't quite bring the book into focus with that history. The principal elements in May's analysis that I will set next to this history are his working hypothesis that the world is a collection of sovereign states, his decision to focus the book on international crimes committed by "strong states" and not on those committed in weak or failed states, and the way he defines "groups" both among victims and among perpetrators, in his explication of the international harm principle. In thinking through these elements, I will refer to three examples of human rights atrocities: Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s; Saddam's attacks on the Kurds in the 1980s; and Nigeria under Abacha in the 1990s. I will explain what is out of focus between the book and this history, and ask May for a diagnosis and a new prescription.

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Citation information for the book: May, Larry. Crimes Against Humanity: A Normative Account. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Social Philosophy Today