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A dangerous isolation

by Michael Mansfield  (September 2001)

The tragedy and horror of the Twin Towers necessarily engenders strong emotional responses. There is, however, an equally strong risk that these responses may be misused and manipulated towards the perceived need to wreak vengeance. Bushspeak has little or no other purpose: 'Head on a plate'; 'Dead or alive'; 'Go get 'em'. Among such exhortations is the occasional reference to 'justice', as if this provides an acceptable gloss for immediate bloody action.

No one suggests that hijacked aeroplane attacks on thousands of people can be remotely justified, and no one suggests that the perpetrators, their accomplices and their organisers should not be pursued and brought to account. The central question is what kind of pursuit is it proper to undertake? This is not a situation where there is an identifiable assailant at the door of your house, or at the borders of your country. There is no evidence of conspiratorial origin; not even any authentic claim of responsibility. If all this were otherwise then you would be entitled in certain well-defined and limited ways to defend yourself. This much was recognised by the Security Council resolution last week. We are all expected to abide by the legal framework within which we all live, which does not countenance going out and destroying all those we suspect to be mortal enemies.

It seems, however, that any potential legal framework that embraces fundamental principles does not apply to nation states and their governments. Their representatives over have paid scant regard and still less reference to these principles unless it is to ensure they do not get in the way (eg, an accelerated extradition process obviating the need for a sufficiency of evidence - a nod from the requesting state will be enough). Is the dawn of the new millennium to be governed by the ethics of the 'Wild West', or are we to continue the struggle to establish well-honed and recognised international principles of law together with the institutions for their implementation?

While America is anxious to nurture support and co-operation for some kind of military response, this position is in contrast to its attitude of disengagement and isolationism over the last 10 years, in relation to initiatives aimed at securing a just and equitable environment for the peoples of the world. The initiatives from which President Bush has withdrawn co-operation include the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty constraints, the UN agreement on illegal small arms trafficking, and the Convention banning biological weapons. In addition, the Senate has deferred indefinitely seeking ratification of the 1996 nuclear test ban treaty and the 1993 nuclear weapons reduction treaty negotiated by Mr Bush's father. Most significantly, in January, even before he took office, Bush announced that his Senate would not be asked to ratify the Treaty of Rome creating an international criminal court.

Ten days before New York, an order in the British Parliament came into effect, enabling the UK to ratify the treaty. A minimum of 60 ratifications is required to establish the 18-judge court at The Hague. Its remit is to try offences of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The court will be able to investigate these crimes whether committed by nationals or state parties, and it will have jurisdiction over crimes wherever committed if referred to the court by the UN. State parties will be obliged to co-operate with court.

These provisions were originally put forward by the International Law Commission of the United Nations in statute form to the UN General Assembly in 1994. There are obvious precedents for such a tribunal, from Nuremberg to Rwanda. Despite overwhelming support from 120 countries and 800 NGOs during a five-week convention in Rome in 1998, the US opposed the whole idea on the grounds that US soldiers on peacekeeping missions might be brought before the court on politically motivated charges. Unsurprising, given the US role in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama and Chile.

- The Observer  (23 September 2001)
- republished in the Guardian News Archive

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revised 18 November 2005