International Bad Guys Now Have to Worry They’ll Get What’s Coming to Them

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Ms. Rosen is is an editorial writer and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and former professor of history at U.C. Davis.

When Henry Kissinger travels abroad, can another government arrest him as a war criminal? Twenty years ago, the answer would have been an emphatic"no." What about today? Not likely, but it's no longer unimaginable.

That's because both governments and corporations, during the past two decades, have tried to create an embryonic system of international justice.

As the flow of capital washes across the globe, for example, multinational corporations have sought assurances that international law will protect their investments in copyrights and patents.

The same is true in the political sphere. Building on the U.N.'s Declaration of Human Rights, and the Nuremberg Trials, at which allied governments held Nazi leaders responsible for crimes against humanity, Western governments have increasingly sought to establish universal rules and regulations by which to judge human behavior.

Just within the last decade, we have watched the long arm of the law grow even longer. Who would have imagined that a soldier who rapes a woman could be convicted of a war crime? Yet, that is precisely what the United Nations decided in a 1993 resolution. Just recently, in fact, three Bosnian Serb soldiers, who used rape and sexual enslavement as instruments of terror and intimidation, were tried and convicted of war crimes at an international tribunal.

Who could have imagined that Britain would detain Gen. Augusto Pinochet for crimes committed in Chile? Who would have believed that the House of Lords would agree that Britain has the right to judge whether another government's leader committed crimes against humanity?

The list goes on. Belgium recently convicted four Rwandans, including two nuns, for the crime of genocide. In the Balkans, Serbia has just handed over Slobodan Milosevic to the United Nations war crimes tribunal where he will likely face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. In South America, Venezuela has just returned Vladimiro Montesinos - the shadowy intelligence chief in the former Fujimoro government - to stand trial for murder, torture, extortion and trafficking in arms and drugs in Peru. If Montesinos strikes a deal and implicates his former boss, moreover, Japan may feel pressured to return Alberto Fujimori to Peru.

The urge to create an international system of justice is part of the larger globalization process that has gradually weakened the economic, political and legal sovereignty of individual nation states.

In July 1998, for example, 120 countries voted to establish the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first permanent body established to try individuals accused of war crimes, genocide and crime against humanity.

But not all nations are thrilled at the prospect of new international laws judging their citizens or their military. Former President Clinton signed the ICC treaty, but as is so often the case with international conventions, the U. S. Senate may never ratify it.

That is because many Americans, including President Bush, believe that the United States has the right to accuse other nations of violating human rights, but refuse to allow our soldiers and citizens to be judged by those very same laws.

The United States, of course, is hardly alone in claiming a double standard of justice. But as the world's only superpower, our country's hypocrisy is far more visible when we fail to live up to our own democratic ideals.

The fact is, many nations harbor the same sentiments. Does the Taliban in Afghanistan want the world to judge its horrendous treatment of women? Does the Chinese government welcome international scrutiny of its political prisoners or its systematic effort to destroy Tibetan culture?

Of course not. Hardly any government wants the international community to judge its customs and traditions. Yet that is the direction in which global justice is headed.

Globalization is a messy process. The emergence of a global economy has produced the kinds of seismic shifts last witnessed during the birth of the industrial revolution. And, as in that era, globalization has not only widened the gulf between the rich and the poor, but also pitted opposing customs and values against one another.

Is it likely that the world's governments will ever agree to the same definition of human rights? What one nation calls a war crime is another country's military necessity. What one nation calls a freedom fighter is another country's terrorist. The victors not only write the history; they also escape facing justice.

To many Americans, for example, Henry Kissinger is celebrated as a brilliant political strategist and diplomat. But there are people in Indochina,

Bangladesh, East Timor and Chile who view him as a war criminal. Can he still travel abroad? Yes, for now, because the United States and its Western allies currently control the international system of justice.

But, as Bob Dylan once sang, the times they are a-changin'. Though stalled by a lack of consensus, we are, in fact, building an international system of justice.

Yet like sailors without a map, we have voyaged into uncharted waters, our moral compass untested, our vision blurry, with a horizon that looms far in the distant future.

This article first appeared as an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle. It is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2001 SF Chronicle

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