We have met the enemy and it is We (the Peoples)

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its now twelve years since the 9-11 attacks sent the post-Cold War human rights revival into a tailspin, and two years since the outbreak of what would quickly amount to civil conflict in Syria – where 70,000 have died and millions are displaced; where the international community cannot even pay for relief, let alone intervene to stop the regime from firing scud missiles into cities it purports to be defending; where the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern political order threatens to crack into pieces, risking the worst collective foreign policy failure since Bosnia, and where the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine has met an untimely and inglorious end .

So you might think we would all be pretty inured to a nip of salt with our humanitarianism these days. Not so, it seems. Its been a particularly bad run recently for those who still reflexively think the UN is part of the solution (hey, I’m with you) despite all better advice. I’m not quite sure where to start. Perhaps with the UN decision two weeks ago to assert diplomatic immunity for having failed to take measures to ensure that its peacekeepers’ latrines avoided triggering a devastating outbreak of cholera in Haiti. Particularly rich, as the Economist points out, coming on the same day as the UN pilloried Haiti for failing to hold its former dictator ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier accountable for his crimes.

However, further disappointments have come this week, and in the area of international criminal justice, where  the UN has long been godfather to a set of tribunals meant to change forever the way the world does business. The less expected news has been the extent to which the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is currently subverting its own self-appointed task of “promoting reconciliation and restoring true peace” by replacing collective guilt with individual responsibility.

A string of high level acquittals by the Appeals Chamber since last November have now unleashed a bitter debate between two camps that agree that the institution has failed in its core mission and differ only over whether to pin the blame on an ostensibly obtuse Office of the Prosecutor or an allegedly cynical Appeals Chamber (see the comments to my last post on the Perišić decision for a scorecard of the debate). At this rate, the most surprising achievement of the Tribunal may be convincing many observers to lose interest entirely in the outcomes of pending Karadzic and Mladic cases.

Meanwhile, the one we saw coming is the recent election in Kenya where it looks likely that Uhuru Kenyatta, indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his role in the organized violence that marred the prior 2007 election, may carry the day. As pointed out by David Bosco on FP, this may be no coincidence, as Kenyatta and others have actually referred to the indictments to burnish their credentials as strong leaders willing to stand up to the West. Moreover, as Bosco also points out, the real nightmare for the Court is that the West may not mind too much either way:

The United States and some European states have warned that there would be “consequences” for the bilateral relationship if Kenyatta prevails. …. But if the ICC’s first decade has demonstrated anything, it is that powerful states — even those most supportive of the court — will rarely elevate international justice above their other interests. The most damaging result of having an ICC indictee elected president might be how little the world will care.

Some of us clearly do care. The blogosphere has been full of a kind of startled annoyance at institutions like the ICTY for plodding along for so many years only to go belly up now. And commentators like Steve Coll have captured a sort of free-floating alarm about the extent to which liberal interventionism has accommodated itself to realpolitik rather than the other way around. Who knew we were all still capable of such idealism? Can it do any good?

It is important to recall that things do change, just not always in the ways you expect. The Economist ran an enlightening special report last week on the spread of democracy and economic growth in Africa. The report pointed out that democratic norms were still shaky in many countries, but that their very existence had forced politicians to be more responsive to broader constituencies than had been the case in the past, empowering individuals to ask more of government and fostering the stability necessary for sustainable development.

In this sense, Kenya’s current dilemma may represent a bad patch in the course of a fundamentally good historical trajectory. However, such ‘bad patches’ are littered with human victims, and chalking a few shattered lives up as the price of global progress is hardly something anyone can morally or legally afford in an age of universal human rights. How bad does the suffering of the Rohingya have to get before it outweighs the stunning political progress seen on so many other fronts in Burma? And how bad does the complacency of Western countries (such as, most recently, Norway) have to be before they are part of the problem?

However one sets this calculus, change also takes time. People are impatient and in the face of phenomena like global warming, we have little leeway (recall that our current discomforts are caused by emissions produced twenty years ago). Doing justice, in particular, is a slow and uncertain process from an empirical perspective, whatever we think of it from a normative viewpoint. Twenty years after the fall of Communism and nearly seventy years after the end of the World War II, for instance, the Czech Republic is still, for instance, in the thick of negotiations over church restitution and only hesitantly embracing the need to acknowledge the suffering of the Sudeten Germans expelled en masse from their homes in the late 1940s.

In times like these, it is sobering but also a little inspiring as well to re-read the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On one hand, would that it were less relevant now than it was then. On the other hand, seventy years later, who’s got any better ideas?

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