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International kangaroo court?

Posted by Richard D North in Campaigning / Media / Rights on 4 August 2008

Why we posted this: we all have to work out whether we agree that “the international community” can impose justice on leaders who abuse human rights. It’s not as obvious as you may think.

The original stories:
International law on trial
John Lloyd
Financial Times Weekend Magazine
26/27 July 2008

International courts are undeniably flawed but…
Letter to the FT
Chris Stephen
2/3 August 2008

The stories in brief:
John Lloyd (a distinguished senior journalist) wrote a piece which wasn’t by any means antagonistic to the idea of international courts of justice. However, focussing on the trials of Serbian nationalist leaders, Mr Lloyd found many senior legal figures (several deeply involved in the trials) who have severe doubts on various grounds.

Chris Stephen replied robustly that that courts had found serious culprits and (apart from serving justice) had usefully removed them from regional politics.

livingissues comment:

This is a very difficult area and the arguments in these two pieces of writing do at least clearly show how sharp the collision of valuable views can be.

The main prejudice against international courts is a sub-set of the prejudice against the United Nations and other attempts at world government. This is that such bodies erect a powerful sense that they are more right, more liberal, than national governments. But it is interesting how often the UN is found wanting, and certainly found wanting in democratic respectability. So there may be merit in reminding ourselves of the value of sovereign countries (preferably strongly rooted in democracy or some other accountability), warts and all. 

One difficulty (not really stressed here) is that one might argue that the legitimate leaders of legitimate causes should not be be held solely responsible for the activities of their willing and well-informed followers.

There is also the problem that many leaders of causes who recommend or carry out violent acts and then go on to become heroes or at any rate legitimate leaders. Modern Israel and South Africa were both formed in part as the result of vicious terrorism. The IRA recommended and carried out violent acts as it fought for its goals. What ensures that the leaders of these groups are not war criminals? That they won? That it is inconvenient to prosecute them? That their wickedness was not as great as the Serbian leaders’?

One might argue that these are matters for the countries concerned, and that if they can’t bring themselves to prosecute their own villains, then the “international community” ought to do it for them. In practice, the countries concerned often have to facilitate the arrest and delivery of their own villains. Again, that will often be a matter of political convenience – which may well coincide with justice but isn’t necessarily the best driver of criminal proceedings.

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