Endgame for International Law.

June 9, 2011

One of the Big Bright Ideas of liberals in the 1990s was the idea that international law was going to solve all our problems. Lawyers like Phillippe Sands launched campaigns to challenge the armed aggression of Anglo-American imperialism on the basis of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine evolved under the Clinton administration. The foundation of such campaigns, of course, was the notion that the UN Security Council, which alone had the international authority to authorise armed action against sovereign governments, could serve as a basis for moral leadership. Atop that foundation was the notion that the International Criminal Court (ICC), set up with such noisy fanfare by the UN and the EU and the Clinton administration again, would be the most suitable tool through which to effect the legal consequences of any decisions made by the Security Council.
In contrast to these ideas, the so-called “neoconservatives” in the Bush II administration (who were often former radical leftists who brought their authoritarian arrogance with them when they shifted to the extreme right) concluded that international law was a dead letter. This was exemplified by John Bolton, a campaigner for the abolition of the United Nations whom Bush, inevitably, appointed as UN Ambassador, but there was a broad groundswell of support for this notion. Partly it was crude patriotism; no outsider should ever be allowed to interfere with whatever the US wanted to do (hence the “Hague Invasion Act”, under which Congress proclaimed its intention of using armed force to liberate any hapless American held captive by the ICC — this was actually a political stunt, since Clinton had already negotiated complete exemption for American citizens from the ICC, but it served to justify the Bush administration’s refusal to ratify the ICC’s authority). Partly it was neoliberalism; no law should ever be allowed to interfere with whatever a rich person wanted to do.
There was a conflict between these groupings, but this conflict, although it pretended to be a moral conflict, was in practice a conflict over who had the power. In some ways it was also a tactical conflict; could Western imperialism be better served through co-opting non-Westerners into supporting the ICC and the UN (which could be relied on to do the West’s bidding because the West paid the piper) or would such imperialism be better served through co-opting them into joining massive armed international aggression? The latter was represented by the “coalition of the willing” nations who supported America’s unprovoked attack on Iraq, but also, later, by the way in which the African Union endorsed, and provided backing for, the American-sponsored invasion of Somalia in 2006.
The route of international law was problematic. According to the UN Charter, there were two major crimes in the world: international aggression (which is defined very clearly, as launching an attack on a country’s territory) and genocide (which is defined very obscurely, but has come to mean either the extermination of a group, or the desire to exterminate a group, or doing things which look as if you might want to exterminate a group). The problem was that all such issues had to be referred to the Security Council, and if China (after 1971, when it was belatedly allowed to join), Russia, Britain, France or the United States refused to accept a Security Council decision, then that decision was revoked.
As a result, those five countries, or any of their allies, were essentially free to perform those major crimes. When North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950, the then Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council in a sulk, and therefore the aggression clause was invoked and half a million Western troops deployed to slaughter three million Koreans. But when Israel attacked Egypt in 1956, the United States could ensure that no forces were sent to march on Tel-Aviv and punish the aggressor (and subsequently it turned out that France and Britain were in league with Israel. Subsequently, virtually all the international aggressions which have been launched have taken place under the auspices or protection of the United States, the globe’s champion aggressor, and the whole concept of punishing aggression has fallen by the wayside, meaning that the core of international law as conceived under the United Nations (and its predecessor, the League of Nations) has been simply euthanized.
Genocide likewise. It is not really possible to claim that the massacres which followed the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 were genocide (landlords are not usually considered an ethnic group). It was, perhaps, possible to see the slaughter of half a million Communists in Indonesia in 1965 as a genocidal act, but since this was being done by the Indonesian government with US assistance, it was impossible to take action. It is interesting to note that the first real accusations of genocide surfaced in connection with the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia in 1975, immediately after the US puppet government was overthrown and a US spy ship was seized by the new Cambodian government. Suddenly everybody was talking about genocide in that country, and genocide became the Big Issue.
There was, however, a problem with this. It was obvious that the Khmer Rouge was not out to exterminate the Khmers. It was, instead, partly trying to wipe out its political opponents (which it identified as most of the population of Pnomh Penh) and partly trying to cope with a massive famine which arose because the US in bombing Cambodia flat over the previous five years had largely destroyed the country’s agriculture (although this could obviously not be called genocide or even aggression, though technically it was both, because the US was doing it). Meanwhile, because the Khmer Rouge was hostile to Vietnam and sympathetic to China, and the US was violently hostile to Vietnam and sympathetic to China, the US was unwilling to let anyone take action against the Khmer Rouge. So, ironically, the action which inaugurated the Age of Talking About Genocide As If It Were Happening, which was in scale something like a genocide but arguably didn’t fit the definition, was launched with US approval and escaped punishment or censure because the US supported it. (After the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, the US actually financially and militarily supported the Khmer Rouge, genocide and all.)
Since then, virtually every country which the West does not like has routinely been accused of genocide, from Albania to Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, the Rwandan (and less-publicised Burundian) genocides, which were textbook cases based on ethnic violence with the goal of extermination, were allowed to happen largely because the West did not want to draw attention to its role in provoking or prolonging them. (The Clinton government, that paragon of international law, refused to allow the UN to use the word “genocide” in its discussion of the Rwandan situation; half a million Tutsis were being hacked to bits in an unfortunate incident of inter-communal strife which should not be blown out of proportion.) In contrast, when thuggish militias in ex-Yugoslavia gunned down a thousand or so civilians, this was proclaimed to be genocide. It appeared that the new international law recognised white people’s rights to be considerably more than a hundred times as important as black people’s. However, this was not really the case; the fact was that the bombers and troops were available to attack Serbia, and therefore the goal was to set a precedent for the use of those bombers and troops so that international law could be used as a tool of international imperialism. Had it been necessary to use intervention in a black country to justify such imperialism, it would have been done — but it was cheaper, for strategic reasons, to intervene first in a white country.
What all this means is that the international law which was being appealed to in the 1990s was something with a fifty-year track record of appalling hypocrisy. It had been exploited for fifty years by the corrupt, brutal and utterly cynical regimes of the world — mainly of the West, the powers who had won the Cold War and now saw themselves as the masters of the universe. Now the lawyers of the West were saying that, henceforth, all this hypocrisy and dishonesty would vanish in their hands and international law would become the device for saving the world. In particular, no longer would it be necessary to appeal to “genocide” for an excuse for Western imperialist intervention. Now all that was needed was “crimes against humanity” (which presumably included stepping deliberately upon someone’s toe) which would arouse a “responsibility to protect” — meaning that foreigners would be entitled to leap in and save the victims of that terrible toe-trampling, if necessary by shooting off the foot that did the trampling. Or both feet. Or napalming the region where it had happened.
And, as a useful addendum, the long-standing “racketeering and anti-money-laundering” policies of Western countries, under which, every now and then, some minor gangster would have her or his wealth stolen by the state instead of by some other gangster, were to be used for purposes of international politics. Henceforth the West had the right not only to invade, but to plunder the resources of, any country they attacked, because obviously any bad person was bad because he or she had money, and hence such “financial sanctions” would automatically stop that bad activity, because nobody in the world does anything, ever, unless they are paid to do so.
The consequences of this ridiculous situation, which was embarrassingly justified by people like Sands who seem to have genuinely fooled themselves into thinking that the system was not corrupt and that “their” rulers (unlike everybody else’s rulers) were just and noble, are plain to see.
Recently, under the responsibility to protect ruling, the French invaded Ivory Coast, deposed the man they didn’t want in charge and installed their guy instead, with the authorization and armed support of the United Nations. Being sensible, the French did not put many white soldiers in harm’s way, but instead hired or co-opted mercenaries from the northern areas of Ivory Coast where the guy they liked held sway. However, these mercenary militiamen were undisciplined thugs who slaughtered civilians in their thousands. And, embarrassingly, at the time the militiamen swept through south-eastern Ivory Coast, Amnesty International were in the area, doing their job trying to collect evidence of crimes committed by the guy the UN wanted kicked out. Amnesty International is an extremely corrupt organisation, but even they could hardly ignore the murders happening all around them, so they sought out the United Nations “peacekeepers”, who were keeping the peace by firing 23mm rotary cannon into the local villages from their MI-24 helicopters (a 23mm cannon-shell certainly makes you very peaceful if it hits you). AI asked the UN to please stop the slaughter of civilians. And what did the UN say? “It is not our responsibility to protect civilians”, they replied. Even though the UN had originally been deployed to the Ivory Coast to stop civilian massacres in the former civil war, and even though they had overwhelming force with which to perform that protection. In other words, the UN no longer applies “responsibility to protect” at all — it is simply, even in the UN’s eyes, an excuse for imperialist action.
Most recently, the chief investigator/prosecutor for the ICC stepped out onto the stage to justify the Western imperialist war against Libya. That war has been doing on for several months, and there has been plenty of time to assemble evidence that the Libyan regime has committed massacres. The Libyan regime is not a particularly nice dictatorship and Colonel Qadhaffi is not over-supplied with scruples when it comes to hanging on to power, so one would expect that the ICC would have found quite a bit of evidence to excuse the bloody massacre which NATO is perpetrating in that country under the auspices of “responsibility to protect”, as in Ivory Coast but on a still greater scale. (The Libyans have acknowledged about a thousand civilian deaths in the bombing campaign so far; they haven’t revealed their military losses, or deaths due to starvation, lack of healthcare or destruction of civilian infrastructure, all of which are happening thanks to NATO’s campaign. All this is arguably more devastating than anything which Qadhaffi’s thugs might have done in suppressing the rebellion — and it’s getting worse.)
Anyway, back to the much-revered ICC. The rapporteur announced that the Libyan government had ordered its troops to rape the rebels, and had equipped their troops with “sex drugs” to encourage them to rape the rebels. Let’s take that seriously for a moment. You’re fighting a big rebellion against your government. You send in your militias to suppress that rebellion, knowing that your militias are under-equipped and possibly low in morale. Are you really going to order them to take time off from fighting against an armed insurrection by running around screwing women and gobbling Viagra to keep their dicks hard? That is, quite simply, not the way any sane organisation behaves. It’s not even the way an insane organisation behaves. But it is the way that, in the past, Western propagandists have struggled to demonise their enemies (one remembers the “rape camps” in Serbia in the 1990s, not to mention the “stolen baby incubators” story in Kuwait in 1990). Western minds are apparently so saturated with sadistic pornography that they have come to think that this is what war is all about. It isn’t.
Meanwhile, exactly one woman has been found, out of all the women available for rape in rebel areas, who actually claims to have been raped by Libyan troops. (There was no attempt to substantiate her claim, as would have happened in any ordinary rape case, by, for instance, performing a semen test.) It seems odd, then, that the ICC claims that universal rape was called for, but that there is a certain absence of it actually happening. Perhaps the Libyan government military is not under Qaddhaffi’s sexual domination? Perhaps Libyan men can’t get it up?
Or, most probably, the ICC has lost all sense of being an International Criminal Court, and has become simply a conduit for the crudest, least credible, most despicable propaganda imaginable, and thus cannot be seen in any way as a legitimate legal entity capable of putting war criminals on trial. And that’s, basically, it. We can write finis to the desire to promote international law. If we want to have an international law, we’re going to have to start all over again, because what we have now is a global gangster’s charter for raping the planet.