New Voices: A Selection from the Fifth Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law

The Curious Case of Singapore’s BIA Desertion Trials: War Crimes, Projects of Empire and the Rule of Law


This article critically analyses a set of war crimes trials, conducted by the British colonial authorities in post-World War II Singapore, which dealt, among others, with the contentious issue of deserting British Indian Army soldiers. While seemingly obscure, these trials illuminate important lessons about rule of law dynamics in war crimes trials. Although these trials were intended by their organizers to facilitate the return of British colonial rule, they resulted in unexpected acquittals and conviction non-confirmations. On the one hand, by applying British military law as a back-up source of law when prosecuting ‘violations of the laws and usages of war’, the British contravened the rule of law by retrospectively subjecting the Japanese defence to unfamiliar legal standards. On the other hand, by binding themselves to a pre-existing and relatively clear source of law, the British were constrained by the rule of law even as this empowered the Japanese defence. These findings speak to broader debates on the challenges of developing international criminal law, by provocatively suggesting that, from a rule of law perspective, what is most important in a body of law is its clarity, accessibility and comprehensiveness rather than its source or its purported ‘universality’.