How does society use legal means at its disposal to stop dictators from using their power to kill and terrorize civilians? Several simultaneous efforts around the world – related to Sierra Leone, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and Iran – point to various available options, without a single proven one. This debate has been revived by the conviction this week of former Liberian President Charles Taylor by the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, for arming Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for “blood diamonds.”
Some have hailed this as historic because it represents the first time since World War II that a head of state has been convicted in this way. They see it as a precedent that will cause other tyrants to change their ways before they, too, are brought to justice. Many others, however, wonder if the rule of law will only be used against Third World dictators, without applying the same standards of justice and morality to Israeli, American, British or other leaders whose actions have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of injured, and millions of refugees.
This distinction is important because if international law is used selectively to punish some leaders and not others, many countries will not only ignore such applications of international law, they will also ignore other dimensions of global legal norms that are related to international peace and security.
The Charles Taylor conviction occurred simultaneously with other such attempts to punish and deter others from contemplating carrying out their own brutal policies targeting civilians. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon continues to move along very slowly, seven years after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. His son Saad Hariri said on Thursday that the Taylor verdict provided hope that Syrian President Bashar Assad would one day be held accountable for his brutality against the Syrian people.
The indictment of Sudanese President Oman Hassan Bashir by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes in Darfur remains unimplemented, because the court has been unable to bring Bashir to trial. The president travels freely to many countries, illustrating the ICC’s erratic global credibility and legitimacy.
In Syria and Iran, the international community has used sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States and the European Union, or multilaterally through the U.N. Security Council, to bring about changes in those governments’ policies. But the results have been meager. Tehran and Damascus seem neither impressed nor fearful. One problem with this approach, which the ICC and special tribunals do not suffer, is that the sanctions are applied merely on the basis of accusations by Western powers that often lack factual support, such as Iran’s determination to build a nuclear bomb.
Another dimension of this Security Council strategy in Syria is the demand by some powers, including the U.S., for the body to meet next week and invoke the use of Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows member states to use force to deal with threats to peace and security. This could include direct warfare, as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, with varying degrees of Security Council approval, or it could see foreign powers militarily supporting the Syrian rebels. War, however, seems to be a poor teacher, because the threat or actual use of this option does not seem to have caused policy changes among countries like Syria, Iran, Sudan or others.
One more approach was initiated last week by the U.S. government when President Barack Obama announced sanctions against private companies providing technology that allows governments to track down dissidents and imprison, torture or kill them. This was a new twist on existing sanctions against companies around the world that do business with Syria and Iran, including buying oil from them.
However, this sanctions-based punitive or deterrence policy also has failed to bring about the desired changes in behavior from Damascus or Tehran. Perhaps that’s because it also suffers from the accusation of double standards. In other words, would companies be sanctioned for selling the same technology to Arab countries like Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, which are close to Washington?
The Taylor conviction represents the most dramatic example to date of how the rule of law can legitimately counter the deeds of criminals and ruling brutes. Yet this approach will continue to elicit protests and opposition from many people around the world if it remains selective and ignores the crimes of U.S., British, Israeli and other leaders who have used warfare or supported attacks against civilians as routine policies.
When the law is selectively applied – favoring whites and prosecuting blacks, as happened for a long time in the American South – it stops being an instrument of justice and order, and turns into one more sickening example of perpetual colonialism and racism.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.