Wednesday, July 17, 2002

In a similar vein...

“We have just emerged from a century that witnessed the evils of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Idi Amin, and the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia...Surely, we have all learned the fundamental lesson of this bloodiest of centuries, which is that impunity from prosecution for grievous crimes must end.”

So said Paul Heinbecker, Canadian ambassador to the UN, during the special session called by Canada to discuss the American decision not to ratify the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court.

When I read this I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or applaud. Heinbecker truly amazes with his ability to say something perverse, surreal and comic all at the same time.

The perverse part is that after millions were killed by their own governments in the twentieth century, the only thing Heinbecker can come up with is dithering, pedantic legalism. Now, if you asked your average man in the street what he might have learned from evils like Stalin and Hitler, he’d probably say they were butchers and talk of the need to stop these sorts of events from happening again. For those of us who study political history and philosophy, the answer would be pretty much the same. We’d look at all the factors that contributed to the rise of this sort of thing in the twentieth century in order to understand genocide, mass murder, totalitarianism, but still with an eye to preventing it. And we might, if we dare, consider why so many in the democratic West spent their time making apologies for Hitler and communism and a whole bevy of Third World liberators/dictators. We may even learn that legal excuses and international diplomacy played a large part in providing the dictators with moral cover.

Now the surreal part. Heinbecker’s list is a bit odd. All the examples he gives are safe bets. Hitler’s Nazism was long ago discredited and Stalin’s Soviet Union is history. Pol Pot’s regime is a memory and the main suspects in Yugoslavia are no longer in government. The question is: why not mention Mao, or Castro or Saddam Hussein? The reason is simple: all their regimes are still in power, and only another national power can remove them. In other words, Heinbecker’s rhetoric has no teeth to it, because giving it teeth would mean military action. And that in turn would be to admit that, de facto, a real power (i.e. the United States) must act against these dictators. It would demonstrate that the court itself was without power, because it lacks a political expression. The international set wants to be above the messy world of national politics and partisanship, but the only way to do that is create a legal abstraction that binds the just and leaves the wicked free to mock the court until a national power steps in. The ultimate irony is that while the US defends Taiwan against China, continues to stand up to Cuba and plans the end of Saddam, the very nations supporting the court, fawn over Chinese leaders, spend vacations on Cuba’s beaches and call for dialogue with Iraq.

Finally, the comedy. I realized, after some reflection, that my above points aren’t really significant; I’ve missed the mark. You see, I read Heinbecker’s statement as though the “we” he was talking about was the collective we. But then it suddenly hit me. Heinbecker wasn’t referring to the larger world where dictators actually do kill millions and only force can stop them. He was talking to his fellow UN diplomats. To them, nothing could be more appealing than the thought of another international body, requiring a coterie of bureaucrats, lawyers and over-paid secretaries with all their benefits and immunity from taxation. It finally dawned on me that these diplomats would have understood Heinbecker’s statement for what it was: a call to use any moralizing pretext in order to construct, yet again, another useless international body that will, in the long run, only make matters worse.

That’s when the image came to me: Mr. Heinbecker pontificating with oratorical grandeur solemnly proclaiming to all the world that the evils of a whole century justified, nay, cried out for nothing less than more bureaucracy. And around the meeting hall, his dower companions, with looks of determined severity on their faces, bob their heads in agreement, peering sternly down their noses at the US delegation, all the while thinking: “How dare you America, how dare you allow the concerns of politics, accountability, freedom and human dignity to interfere with our sublime swindle.”

Then I laughed.

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