Sunday, January 30, 2011

Civilians in War Zones and International Law

In a discussion on Civilians in War Zones, eminent Judge, Richard Goldstone, formerly of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, characterized the last century as “very bloody”. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was one civilian killed for every eight or nine soldiers. In World War II, the ratio became 1 to 1. Now, for every soldier killed, nine civilians die. The cause is the use of indiscriminate air power which pays propaganda value lip service to supposed minimization of collateral damage, a euphemism for civilian injuries, but also because of “deliberate attacks against civilians” to terrorize them.

Though we already have some excellent international court facilities, like The Hague in Holland, not all countries co-operate in making them effective, including the US, and so to deter this trend, Goldstone wants better international courts and more international co-operation to bring criminals to justice:

Our only hope is in an efficient, international system of justice&hellip [and] …an effective, coherent international system of law.

The widespread availability of pictorial evidence, from digital cameras, mobile phones and hand held movie cameras, easily transmitted from country to country by the internet offers new ways of bringing criminals to justice. He said:

There should be true equality. People’s human dignity and their right to that dignity needs to be recognized, [through] a concerted effort to implement international law.

Helen Stacy, a Stanford scholar in international and comparative law, pointed to the admirable role of the US in bringing about the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in pressing on with the Nuremberg Trials. Yet the US has fallen short of its once impressive standards in refusing to sign, for example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 194 nations have ratified this convention including all of the nations in the UN except Somalia and the US! Equally, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, has only not been signed by the US.

The US has, of course, liberal forms of expression, and so notionally it is possible for citizens to raise these issues and press for them, but It is pretty plain to outsiders, if not to many people within the US system, that the fault in the system is the press and broadcast media which are overwhelmingly owned by one small section of society with a view of the world that does not favor many of these conventions, for all the past reputation of the US. The media either fail to highlight important international issues, or make light of them. Professor James Campbell, who headed Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, said:

Conversations like this are enormously important. The future of international humanitarian law is being determined.

International humanitarian law is “a constant struggle, an inescapably political struggle assailed by powerful enemies, and curiously mocked by a public that regards it as naïve, feckless, or who regard the idea of international law as an oxymoron”. Nevertheless, “the rapid expansion of international law is ongoing… Just as freedom is a constant struggle, so is international humanitarian law. It is being waged in our country, in dialogues like the one we’re having today”.

Ultimately, the skepticism about international law, will remain valid as long as the most powerful country in the deliberately stands in the way of effective implementation because it prefers to be its own law. That would be fine, if that country operated internationally by the legal and democratic principles which it is fond of citing. Instead it uses the double talk of John Foster Dulles—it always agrees in principle, while in practice putting every obstacle in the way.

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