In 2001, Philip Kearney took a leave of absence from his job as a district attorney in San Francisco to serve as a war crimes prosecutor for the United Nations in Kosovo. Although he knew next to nothing about international laws of war or the way they manifested themselves within the diverse legal systems of other countries, his sense of adventure led him to accept the assignment—albeit with some trepidation for his own safety. He arrived in Pristina, a bleak and dangerous city where the animosities between Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbians were still explosive and such justice as there was tended to be frontier justice. The UN was there to bring order, openness and fairness to judicial proceedings. It was, as Kearney recounts in Under the Blue Flag, the most rigorous kind of on-the-job training.

Complicated cases were dropped in his lap at the last minute. He had to work through translators and under the protection of armed bodyguards. Moreover, he was left to conduct his own investigations with only a minimum of support personnel. The courtroom practices gave him much less latitude than American courts to aggressively prosecute cases.

Despite these setbacks, Kearney soon became obsessed with seeing justice done. His passion grew in no small part from face-to-face contacts with tragic victims—women sold into sex slavery, broken men who had survived brutal prison camps, survivors of villages virtually eradicated by ethnic cleansing. After his six-month term ended, Kearney was so impassioned by his cause that he enlisted for another term, a decision that both imperiled his regular job and further strained his marriage.
Without being didactic, Kearney inserts enough history into his narrative to clarify the fiendishly complex Kosovo situation to a degree that news stories seldom do. The chief value of this book, however, is not its specificity, but its demonstration that without a transparent, balanced and politically impervious legal system there can be no hope for justice.

Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

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