On Thursday 6th October, the Amnesty International group of Strasbourg hosted a showing of the film “Section Spéciale” at the Odyssée cinema with Jean-Paul Costa, then President of the European Court of Human Rights, present to answer questions surrounding the topic of human rights violations throughout time.
“Section Spéciale” is set during the emergence of the Vichy government’s rule in “la zone libre” of France. The plot goes somewhat like this:
During the occupation of France, a young German naval officer is killed in Paris by a group of leftist activists. The Vichy government seeks to appease the Germans by locating the perpetrators and agreeing to the execution of six people, and a special section is set up for this purpose. The section consists of judges who are either too ambitious, too cowardly or too inhumane to refuse such work. Several communist militants, although innocent of the crime, are immediately imprisoned and tried by a closed court. A week after the murder on the subway, three alleged “terrorist” Communists are executed.
The film shared the Best Director prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film. Even today, it represents the universality of human rights violations occurring all over the globe, and not just under unstable rule or in developing countries. Atrocities like those committed in the Second World War take place everyday around us, and the difference between right as wrong has not changed.
Europe has learnt a lot from the World Wars: the existence of multinational institutions based on a liberal concept of co-operation which have flourished for the past decade, and World War Three has yet to occur. But we still see human rights violations on an everyday basis. Do governments still feel the need to justify crimes by committing crimes themselves? It is concepts such as the death penalty and other drastic « justification » methods that bring to light the question, “What really is justice?”
Justice is a term we use everyday without batting an eyelid. In a simple sense, and at least to me, justice is the quality of being both fair and reasonable, but also the administration of the law or authority in maintaining this. People pay the price for crimes committed, and families of victims almost always seek justice, whether it is to aid the grieving process or simply to «make things right ». But sometimes this hunger for justice, and the pressure put on governments to supply it, leads to what I can only deem as “unjustified justice.” An excellent case for this concept is the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia. Although evidence initially pointed to Troy Davis as the murderer of Officer MacPhail, the proof against him disintegrated with time. Four witnesses admitted in court that they had lied in their testimonies, four witnesses implicated another man as having killed Officer MacPhail and three original state witnesses described police coercion during questioning, including one who was 16 years old at the time of the murder. Yet the execution still took place, even as the evidence for Mr Davis was no longer substantial.
In the film, the flames of totalitarianism had to be stoked with innocent blood, and it is especially convenient for governments if the accused are thoroughly expendable in their eyes. In Europe, 92% of states have abolished the death penalty, but in the United States, the statistics are alarmingly different. 34 out of 50 states still use the death penalty as a form of punishment, although a 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners found that a clear majority of voters (61%) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder, including life with no possibility of parole or restitution to the victim’s family (39%), life with no possibility of parole (13%) or life with the possibility of parole (9%).
The plot of the film and the case of Troy Davis are both prime examples of how justice is often served solely for justice’s sake. Justice is the quality of being both fair and reasonable, but more often we are seeing hurt and harm inflicted on someone for their wrongdoing, more simply known as revenge. Compensating measures of justice for wrongdoing, is not justice at all. Fair, perhaps, but not at all reasonable. It is here that one can see the fine line between justice and revenge, a line that is still traversed by individuals and governments to this day.