There is a basic contradiction at the heart of the international system. Lofty universal values imbue the preamble to the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and many other resolutions of the organization, but the rest of the UN Charter is often sordidly pragmatic, with checks, balances and vetoes to make sure that member states actually stay in.
The tension between ideals and practice can be dynamic. If the organization had its head in the clouds, its legs would be chopped off, so it is actually a good thing has its feet in the real mud of practical geopolitics. Without waxing too philosophical, history and human life are full of similar playoffs between lofty aspirations and the exigencies of reality. Our job is not to get depressed by the latter and continually nudge progress on the former.
So, after the complete failure of the UN to act effectively over Syria, we should still allow that it has rescued, fed and treated the millions of victims fleeing from the consequences of the Security Council’s inefficacy, and that is also an arena where member states’ fulfilment of their obligations to refugees can be measured.
But there were also two pieces of good news in November. Firstly, mentioned in a previous issue, the British candidate for re-election to the International Court of Justice, Sir Christopher Greenwood, had to withdraw when it was obvious that he was going to lose. Sir Christopher had earned his original nomination for finding legal excuses, against the current of international legal opinion, for Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq without UN endorsement. We normally welcome squeaky wheels, but this one clearly needed more than an injection of grease.
We should also admit that some of other successful candidates might have been lacking as well, but in this case justice was belatedly served. The shameful thing was that he had been nominated in the first place without an uproar in parliament and the media. And the gesture of disdain for British government’s international behavior seems to have flown past the British public without much notice.
That is reinforced by the signal sent by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which found Serb General Ratko Mladic guilty of multiple charges, including genocide, over his nationalist rampages through Bosnia. It has taken far, far too long, but sends a signal to the likes of Al-Assad, the Burmese military, Netanyahu – and Tony Blair – that impunity is not guaranteed.
But this is where the so-called Left shows how deep its feet are in the mud. People who call for Blair and Bush to be prosecuted will defend murderous war lords across the world if the latter have the PR sense to attack the US and can pose as anti-Imperialists. Noam Chomsky, scourge of US imperialism, pulls his punches when the accused is anti-American. In an approving foreword to a book attacking the trials of the murderous Serb leadership, he justified himself by saying that Mladic did not actually commit genocide, while admitting that he was responsible for mass murder!
Like many other expediently indulgent defenders of mass murder, his main “philosophical” weapon is “What-aboutism”. Admittedly this has a long, long pedigree, going back to at least the October Revolution. It is based on diverting well-founded allegations of atrocities and crimes by the thugs of your political ilk with counter claims of crimes by other parties.
Chomsky is fond, for example, of setting the very real case of US and Indonesian crimes in East Timor against, for example, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or the Bosnians. Americans and Westerners might deflect criticism of egregious Saudi war crimes against Yemen with true but irrelevant tales of barbarity by ISIS, which will also be invoked by Leftists to exonerate Al Assad. Western “anti-Imperialists” will applaud Russia and China for vetoing the invocation of the International Criminal Court against Syria – even though it covers all crimes committed by all sides.
But it is difficult for Washington to complain with any degree of sincerity, since the US has just threatened to close down the PLO office in Washington for Palestinians’ temerity in asking the ICC to investigate Israeli actions. Of course, the longstanding American position has always been that the Court should never investigate or prosecute Americans, but the rest of the world is fair game – except Israel. And although it has not been put in writing yet, there is probably an implicit get-out-of-jail card for the Saudis as well.
Socialism should be about the extension of civil, social and economic rights – to everybody. And the corollary is that we should be going after those who threaten them regardless of whatever ‘ism’ they invoke to do so. That should involve active and vociferous support for the United Nations “Responsibility to Protect,” and pressure on our governments to support it as well. Greenwood out of one court, and Mladic into a prison is something to cheer us up in the work.
Ian Williams latest books are Untold: The Real Story of the UN in Peace and War and Political and Cultural Perceptions of George Orwell, British and American Perspectives.