“International law is merely a tool for the powerful”.
Discuss with reference to the US approach to the law on the use of force or human rights.
This was one of the questions put to us in the final exam of a post-grad course on International Law over a couple of years ago. Can’t remember exactly how I came out of it, but I probably went on blathering about how International Law is used by the US and other major hegemons to advance their own self-interest. Nothing new, nothing surprising but a topic that hits us every day with more intensity.
Last week I felt particularly sadden and angered by a number of events that took place across the globe, which again brought the above question-statement to the fore:
1. The threat by British authorities to arrest Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy after the Latin American country granted him political assylum.
Beyond the manhunt against Wikileaks founder for obviously orchestrated allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden (see this article for a rundown on the sequence of events put together from a number of leaked police reports and other witnesses’ accounts), what’s angered me is the biased media coverage against Assange, the lack of support from his own government (Australia), and the blatant use of threats against cilvil liberties and international law from major governments.
2.The incarceration for two years of three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, after a judge decided that the band’s actions were notivated y religious hatred when they staged an anti-Kremlin protest at the altar of Moscow’s Chris the Saviour Cathedral.
3. The Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine massacre in South Africa that left 34 dead and 78 wounded when police open fire at the crowd of striking miners as result of a week-long strike over demands for a wage rise (the average pay for one of these miners being US$500 a month).
Never stop questioning
All three cases highlight and remind us of both the fragility and the biased nature of International Law in the hands of powerful political and private interests – the protection of military and state secrets, the mocking of an autocratic ruler and his paraphernalia/machinery and the defense of private interests at any cost including the loss of the lives of underpaid and overworked workers. But I won’t go into any more details as I’m sure you’ve had enough of the media circus that surrounds all of them.
What I want to do is to stress once more the need to keep on questioning the institutions used to govern us, to judge us, to teach us, to lead us. Because, as Noam Chomsky reminds us we “need to be able to detect forms of authority and coercion and challenge those that are not legitimate”. If we forget that and accept what’s served to us by governments and by the media, we will help further the interests of those in control.
We need to remember that liberal values are shown to us to be at the core of the purpose and mission of the dominant western democracies in the world – they need to be seen to promote human dignity and spreading democracy (whether that is true or whether the merely advance corporate interests). But in reality, what happens is that once these ideas have been recognised, once they have normalised and accepted as valid by their own citizens and the countries in the periphery, the impression of dominance disappears entirely, we believe their legitimacy and stop questioning them.
So, today, I just want to remind us that International Law (as other institutions and norms that are presented to us as necessities for a civil society) in as much as it may have been founded on principles of fairness and protection of basic human dignity, it is pervasively albeit discretely used as a tool of the powerful to protect their hegemonic power and their legitimacy. How?
How does International Law get abused/neglected/reshaped?
The use and abuse of International Law (and by default in many cases, the abuse of civil liberties) by the powerful comes in many shapes and sizes.
Sometimes, we see a withdrawal of the powerful from the very institutions of International Law (as in the case of the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol) they formulated and helped shape. Take as a example the case of the United States versus the International Criminal Court. After campaigning for the formation of an international tribunal and being one of the main participants in the formation of the Ad Hoc Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (and later the ICTR to deal with crimes perpetrated in Rwanda) and their important role in a preparatory committee in 1996 to conclude a draft earlier presented by the International Law Commission for the formation of an International Court of Justice, the United States refused to ratify the Rome Statute. The Bush Administration embarked on a campaign against the establishment of the ICC as in theory according to the statute, the ICC would have jurisdiction to detain US citizens (and those from other non-signatory nations) without the consent of the US directly or through its agreement with a Security Council decision. The emergence of an international institution capable of detaining US officials hence capacitated to restrict their power to employ military forces at will beyond US borders, did not sit well with the US administration.
In other cases, we see a forceful change in International Law. For instance, in the last 15 years, the US have advanced claims for new rights to use force in the following areas:a right to unilaterally enforce Security Council authorisations in the interventions in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq; a broadened right to exercise self-defence against terrorist attacks in the missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan and later the war in Afghanistan; and a bold right to pre-emptive self-defence, so far only cautiously invoked in the war in Iraq.
And in other cases, we see a blatant attempt at disregarding the power of International Law and human liberties. For instance, WikiLeaks has revealed since its inception the seemingly indiscriminate killing of Baghdad civilians by a United States Apache attack helicopter; details about the true face of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the Obama administration’s pressure on other nations not to prosecute Bush-era officials for torture; and many other thorny secrets. These reports have angered certain factions in the US and in fact, the US Justice Department has recently confirmed that there was a continuous investigation against WikiLeaks, and just-disclosed Australian government documents from this past February state that “the U.S. investigation into possible criminal conduct by Mr. Assange has been ongoing for more than a year.” WikiLeaks itself has published e-mails from Stratfor, a private intelligence corporation, which state that a grand jury has already returned a sealed indictment of Mr. Assange.
If Britain denies safe passage for Julian Assange to Ecuador and he is eventually extradited to the United States, the consequences will reverberate for years around the world. As filmakers Michael Moore and Oliver Stone explain, given the fact that Assange is not an American citizen, and none of his actions have taken place on American soil, charging him with espionage or terrorism against the US could open an international can of worms because, by the same logic, other countries like Russia or China could demand that foreign reporters anywhere on earth be extradited for violating their laws.
So, for those that question Julian Assange’s innocence or for those that believe the Pussy Riots should not have gone that far, or for those who think unrest in a mine results in a loss of profit for many and it needs to be suppressed at any cost, remember:
I am not talking about conspiracies, I am talking about instruments used to establish and consolidate hegemony and legitimacy of the powerful. Using the tools already available to them, creating tools that suit their purpose, working with propaganda, the powerful distort the important information and create illusions that make the population believe what they are told and away from the truths behind the political process.
In Noam Chomsky’s words: “At this stage of history, one of two things is possible: Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests guided by values of solidarity and sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny to control.”
So, never stop questioning.