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Name: Antony Loewenstein
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Friday, June 17, 2005

Not above the law

Philippe Sands QC is director of the Centre for International Courts and Tribunals at University College London and currently speaking in Australia. During an interview on ABC TV Lateline last night, he argued that John Howard, Tony Blair and George W. Bush may one day face criminal charges over their actions in the Iraq war:

"Under international law an illegal war amounts to the crime of aggression and in some countries around the world a crime of aggression is one in which they exercise jurisdiction. So the possibility really can't be excluded that if messrs Blair and Howard at some point in the future travel after they've left office to a country which, for example, has an extradition agreement with another country where you have an independent prosecutor."

Precedents do exist. Chile's dictator and US and British friend Augusto Pinochet always thought he would live above the law, but he will be hopefully hounded for the remainder of his life to answer charges of human rights abuses during his reign of terror. Likewise, Israel's Ariel Sharon. He has never faced a court to answer for his role in the 1982 massacres in Sabra and Shatilla. The Belgium courts were considering pressing charges against Sharon but relented after US pressure. In early 2005, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in the sights of the German courts for his role in torture in Iraq. And let's not forget Henry Kissinger, friend of the rich and powerful (including NSW Premier Bob Carr). To this day, he refuses to travel to certain countries due to potential prosecution, due to his role in subverting democracies from Chile to Cambodia.

It is the height of Western imperial arrogance to suggest that only "they" - African despots, Iraqi dictators or Cambodian generals - should be held accountable for past crimes and not "us", the benign leaders of so-called open democracies.

A victim of Pinochet's reign of terror, tacitly supported by the US government, Joyce Horman, perfectly articulates the need for Western accountability:

"The American military and the American government have an incredible amount of power and the abuse of that power was typified by the Chilean coup. For Americans to be bumping off Americans in foreign lands is not what American citizens want their government to be doing."

Howard, Blair and Bush have been warned.


Anonymous Shaba-dabba-dooboo! said...

Well, then, Saddam Hussein's trial is certainly legitimate for his unchecked aggression against Kuwait, his assassination attempt of GHWB, and his activities against Iraqi dissidents in other countries, including Australia. I hope you're rooting for a big ol' guilty verdict there, Ant.

What about former Soviet leaders? Current Chinese leaders - if the Chen story is to be believed, and I believe it? Fidel Castro?

Friday, June 17, 2005 2:35:00 pm  
Blogger Roy Wilke said...

Few people seem to have noticed that Philippe Sands QC made the same comments on Wednesday night on ABC Radio National.

Friday, June 17, 2005 3:30:00 pm  
Blogger Antony Loewenstein said...

The point of international law and the development of accepted norms is that everybody, Westerners and others, should be treated the same way. It's messy, it doesn't work perfectly, but Western leaders will hopefully soon be able to charged with crimes they may have committed, and not just Third World despots etc...
And yes, Saddam does seem rather guilty, but let's wait for the trial. And no, I wouldn't support the death penalty.

Friday, June 17, 2005 3:36:00 pm  
Anonymous The Shab-Man! said...

And the problem with international law is that it's only as good as the countries behind it, and most countries in the world are not democratic, their leaders authoritarian thugs to one degree or another, and as such they do not have any legitimate power granted by and flowing upward from the people.

International law is an exceedingly slippery thing, far more slippery than you care to admit, but once you get beyond bi- or multi-lateral treaties between states then you're talking about holding legitimate democracies hostage to the whims of authoritarians with their own agendas - which is what happens when you have the moral equivalence writ large of the UN General Assembly, which exists more to protect violators of norms of behaviour than to punish them.

Friday, June 17, 2005 5:05:00 pm  
Anonymous Bruce M Warrington said...

If Moe thought your previous name was the worst he'd ever heard, I wonder what he'd make of your Flintstones-inspired effort in your earlier post?

"Moral equivalence" - now there's a silly charge. It's nothing more than judging two things by one moral standard and reaching the same conclusion: i.e. being consistent. If you truly think that two things are not equivalent, you should explain why they're different. To decry "moral equivalence" is simply another way of saying that one must apply different moral standards to each thing. That is wrong.

[Y]ou're talking about holding legitimate democracies hostage to the whims of authoritarians with their own agendas

Care to explain this hyperbole?

How are "legitimate democracies" held hostage? Nations are, by and large, allowed to do what they want within their own borders. What goes on inside a dictatorship has virtually no effect on the domestic life inside a democracy. It's only when nations interact that international law has any effect. Are you suggesting that "legitimate democracies" can do what they like? I doubt that the citizens of a dictatorship, whatever their opinion of their dictator, will agree with that.

And what is a "legitimate democracy" anyway? Can there be an "illegitimate democracy" (Venezuela, perhaps)? Who judges?

[T]he UN General Assembly ... exists more to protect violators of norms of behaviour than to punish them.

How does it do that? How does one punish a nation for violating norms of behaviour anyway?

To take my second question first, I assume your answer is "war"; therefore, the UN General Assembly protects violators by prohibiting war.

There are two things wrong with that conclusion. First, questions of war and peace are the province of the Security Council. Second, war is not necessarily the only option, nor is it even a very good option.

Wars cause more death and misery than most governments, and most of the atrocities in the modern world have occurred when the perpetrating nation was fighting a war (Katyn Forest; the Holocaust; the Balkan atrocities; Saddam's gassing of the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war; even the Rwandan genocide occurred in the context of a civil war between the government and the RPF). I, for one, would support efforts to delegitimise war and make it harder to wage.

Friday, June 17, 2005 10:09:00 pm  

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