If international human rights law is to be credible it needs to be applied against all who violate its precepts, not just the West’s favourite demons.
The trial and execution of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has highlighted, yet again, the selective nature of international justice. Some tyrants get put on trial, but not others.
To ensure that international human rights law is credible, respected and effective, it needs to be applied consistently and fairly – against all those who violate its precepts, not just against the West’s favourite demons, like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.
Pro-western dictators have always been protected from prosecution. President Suharto of Indonesia, who slaughtered a million leftists and suspected leftists in the 1960s, was never put on trial. Nor was Augusto Pinochet, PW Botha, Alfredo Stroessner, the Shah of Iran, Antonio Salazar, Ferdinand Marcos, Anastasio Somoza and countless other tyrants who did Washington’s bidding.
The former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, continues to escape justice – despite his orchestration of the carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The indiscriminate, reckless nature of the aerial bombardment of these countries was a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Nevertheless, my legal case http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,690678,00.htmlagainst Kissinger in the London courts in 2002, and similar legal actions in France and Belgium, failed to get him put in the dock.
The inconsistent application of International law is glaring. The ex-President of Liberia, Charles Taylor http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/2963086.stm .is behind bars and due to stand trial on charges of war crimes. But no such rendezvous with justice awaits neighbouring African despots, such as President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Their regimes stand accused of detention without trial, torture, rape and massacres on an industrial scale. There is, however, no prospect of them answering any time soon for their crimes against humanity.
The same absence of enforcement is notable concerning the abuse of political prisoners in countries like Burma, Iran, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Uganda .
While the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) http://www.icc-cpi.int/home.htmlwas a milestone in international jurisprudence, its effectiveness has been limited. The US refuses to recognise it. Staffing and funding are inadequate. And it lacks sure-fire mechanisms for enforcement. In particular, it cannot try crimes that pre-date its establishment (1 July 2002) and it has no way of arresting dictators and taking them for trial at the ICC.
During last year’s war in Lebanon, both Israel and Hezbollah indiscriminately bombed civilian areas, killing innocent people. Such actions are war crimes under international law and ICC statutes. If the ICC decided to initiate prosecutions it would face the immediate problem of who would arrest the indicted men and how would they be bought before the ICC. People who are likely to face long terms of imprisonment are not going to hand in themselves. The Israeli police and Hezbollah militia are not going to seize their own political and military leaders and hand them over to the ICC.
Another big problem stems from the international legal tradition that serving heads of state and other high ranking state officials have immunity from prosecution. This immunity covers everything from illegal parking to mass murder.
The Rome Treaty, which established the ICC, removed this immunity for crimes against humanity and war crimes – but only for such crimes committed since 2002. In other words, immunity from prosecution remains for earlier human rights violations. The victims of previous tortures and massacres continue to lack legal redress.
Despite the lifting of immunity for post-2002 crimes, so far there is no indication that the ICC is serious about prosecuting government leaders implicated in recent human rights abuses. Immunity from prosecution for senior state officials has been removed in theory but not, it seems, in practice.
President Ahmadinejad of Iran has never been investigated by the ICC for his regime’s imprisonment, torture and execution of ethnic minorities – the Ahwazi Arabs http://www.petertatchell.net/international/iranraciststate.htm, Baluchis, Kurds and Turkmen. Indonesia’s head of state, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, faces no charges arising from the bloody repression in Aceh and West Papua http://www.petertatchell.net/international/westpapua.htm .
Human rights law is supposed to be about justice. Where is justice when victims of genocide, torture and other heinous crimes have no redress because the person with ultimate responsibility for their suffering is a head of state?
What is the point of having international human rights laws if the main orchestrators of abuse – heads of state and top government officials – are not prosecuted? We may as well tear them up and chuck them in the bin.