Dishing Up International Law a la Carte

Official Washington honors international law when it’s politically useful, such as in condemning a global adversary, but then dismisses it as useless if it gets in the way of some desired U.S. action. This “international law a la carte” undermines the concept’s fundamental value, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

International law is vital to the welfare of every man, woman and child on this planet, although the vast majority of them do not know this is so. The vital aspect lies in the fact that the universally applicable nature of human rights – which prohibit such actions as the use of torture, arbitrary arrest and detention while supporting freedom of movement, conscience, cultural rights and the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, among other things – has its primary foundation in international law.

Examples of this can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various Geneva Conventions.

President George W. Bush.

President George W. Bush.

To understand just how important international law is to the universal application of human rights, one has to consider just how inadequate to this end are national and local laws. This inadequacy should come as no surprise. For hundreds of years now, the dominant form of political organization has been the nation-state. The most common sort of law is that specific to the state, and in the vast majority of cases, protection of rights under such law is reserved for the citizen.

In other words, if you are not a citizen of a particular state, you cannot assume you have any rights or protections within that state’s borders. Worse yet, if you happen to be stateless (and the number of such people is rapidly increasing), you are without local legal rights just about everywhere.

Ideally, this is not how things should go. Indeed, Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” And, if you find yourself in a country that has ratified this Declaration, you should come under its protection.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case in practice. The mystique of the nation-state and the nativism that goes along with it often leads to the denigration of this vital legal obligation just because it originates from outside of the state.

Many people in the West assume that the denigration of international law upholding human rights occurs mostly within authoritarian states – states that do not protect such rights for their own citizens, much less recognize them as universally applicable. But that is not the case.

Such flouting of international law is common among democracies as well. It is even noticeable in the behavior of the United States. Take for instance the current treatment of illegal immigrants. Their human rights are certainly not respected in this country which, historically, is a nation of immigrants.

The problem goes beyond the maltreatment of immigrants. In fact, the current dismissive attitude toward human rights and the international laws that uphold them has its roots in the fear of terrorism. Such actions as arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, the use of torture, and so forth are all justified by the so-called “war on terror.”

These actions by the U.S. government are illegal under international law, but because the enforcement of law is almost always the business of the state, and the United States is a “superpower,” who is to call U.S. officials to account for their crimes? No one. International law has no designated policemen.

 

 

 

Culpability of Special Interest Politics

Although the “war on terror” appears to be an open-ended one, its influence on policy and national behavior may wax and wane. There are other obstacles that are actually structurally embedded within U.S. democratic practice that also undermine adherence to international law. One of these is the pervasive influence of apparently all powerful special interests or lobbies in the formation of state policy.

Within the United States, there are a myriad number of special interests that ply the halls of power at every level of government. Some of them are dedicated to good causes. Indeed, advocates for human rights and supporters of international law have their own, albeit not very influential, lobbies.

There are other interests of great power, however, that devote themselves to, among other things, the dehumanization of entire groups of people. A good example are the Zionists whose multiple lobbies influence U.S. Middle East policy so as to assure unquestioned support of Israel, and thereby secure American involvement not only in the destruction of Palestinian human rights, but of the Palestinians as a nation and a people.

In short, the power of some special interests is sufficient to involve the U.S. in what amounts to international criminal behavior.

The average U.S. citizen, engrossed as he or she is in their local environment, does not understand this aspect of their politics. The media, from which U.S. citizens take most of their information on government behavior, are themselves subject to the influence of the same special interests that stalk the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

Therefore, the media cannot be relied upon to educate the citizenry on the role of lobbies. We are thus faced with a messy set of problems: widespread lack of popular awareness of how special interests can control government, what this can result in, and the fact that this lack of awareness is likely compounded by the public’s equally widespread apathy regarding their own ignorance.

It is this insularity and the know-nothing attitude that goes along with it that has allowed special interests to become the main center of political power in America. Short of catastrophic political breakdown, this arrangement is not going to change. The only thing that those who value international law and human rights can do is to continue to build their own special interest lobbies and compete for influence in government against the dehumanizers and other assorted international law breakers.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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9 comments for “Dishing Up International Law a la Carte

  1. Hillary
    September 15, 2014 at 08:50
  2. Zachary Smith
    September 14, 2014 at 22:32

    I’ve had some difficulties posting, but this time I’d just finished pasting the password and my just-begun post went automatic!

    Anyhow, I doubt if anybody approves of mistreating illegals, except maybe the BHO administration and Congress. If it’s happening, it ought to stop.

    But in any event, any such mistreatment isn’t even in the same league as torture, and I resent what looks to me like an attempt to put them in the same class of evils.

  3. Zachary Smith
    September 14, 2014 at 22:27

    Take for instance the current treatment of illegal immigrants. Their human rights are certainly not respected in this country which, historically, is a nation of immigrants.

    The problem goes beyond the maltreatment of immigrants. In fact, the current dismissive attitude toward human rights and the international laws that uphold them has its roots in the fear of terrorism. Such actions as arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, the use of torture, and so forth are all justified by the so-called “war on terror.”

  4. Abe
    September 14, 2014 at 14:52

    This is how Obama plans to sneak back in and re-ignite with last year’s failed bombing campaign that never was in Syria. He explains, “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria.”

    Put aside for a minute that any US airstrikes conducted inside Syria without consultation from the Syrian government would be classed by international law and perhaps even by the UN as an act of war against Syria. Why are US politicians, bureaucrats and paid media pundits all guarding their Syrian option so closely? I thought this was an ISIS crisis, not a Bashar al Assad crisis?

    The central flaw in all of this is that Washington has no real policy on Syria other than hyperbole. Any policies it does have are centered around clandestine and illegal operations there. US officials will spout now and again how, “we do not recognize Syria as a sovereign state”, even though the US has no legal basis on which to maintain such a position. They simply announce in 2011 that, “Assad must go”, ala regime change per usual.

    Obama tried to explain Tuesday evening, “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.”

    Instead the US only recognizes the fabled “Free Syria Army” – more of a concept than an actual army, as the legitimate governing body in Syria. So much so, that for the last 3 years Washington and its agencies like the CIA have been supporting and arming this proxy guerrilla fighting force – in effect driving a bloody civil war inside Syria.

    Ironically (well, not really), the US has been doing the very thing that it’s been accusing (but has yet to prove) the Russians of doing in Eastern Ukraine. If any other country did what the US is doing in Syria, it would be roundly condemned by the US as ‘violating the sovereignty of Syria’ and disrespecting what John Kerry too often refers to as ‘international norms’. But for Obama, John Kerry, McCain and company, they’ve given themselves a free pass. That’s American exceptionalism.

    US Will Use ‘ISIS Airstrikes’ in Syria as Aircover for Rebels, Hit Syrian Military Targets
    By Patrick Henningsen
    http://21stcenturywire.com/2014/09/12/us-will-use-airstrikes-in-syria-as-aircover-for-rebels-hit-syrian-military-targets/

  5. Abe
    September 14, 2014 at 14:29

    At West Point Obama told us, to the applause of West Point cadets, that “American exceptionalism” is a doctrine that justifies whatever Washington does. If Washington violates domestic and international law by torturing “detainees” or violates the Nuremberg standard by invading countries that have undertaken no hostile action against the US or its allies, “exceptionalism” is the priest’s blessing that absolves Washington’s sins against law and international norms. Washington’s crimes are transformed into Washington’s affirmation of the rule of law.

    Here is Obama in his own words: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”

    Actions indeed. In the 21st century “American exceptionalism” has destroyed seven countries in whole or in part. Millions of people are dead, maimed, and displaced, and all of this criminal destruction is evidence of Washington’s reaffirmation of international norms and the rule of law. Destruction and murder are merely collateral damage from Washington’s affirmation of international norms.

    “American exceptionalism” also means that US presidents can lie through their teeth and misrepresent those they choose to demonize.

    What Obama Told Us At West Point
    By Paul Craig Roberts
    http://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2014/06/02/what-obama-told-us-at-west-point.html

  6. Abe
    September 14, 2014 at 13:44

    Whatever gets in the way of Washington’s agenda is ‘illegal.’ ‘undemocratic’ and ‘against human rights.’
    -Paul Craig Roberts
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHYJpuszMDw

  7. Abe
    September 14, 2014 at 13:41

    During the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama regimes, Washington has established that whatever serves Washington’s agenda is legal. Laws inconsistent with Washington’s agenda are simply not applicable. They are dead letter laws.

    Obama Regime’s Hypocrisy Sets New World Record
    By Paul Craig Roberts
    http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2014/03/12/obama-regimes-hypocrisy-sets-new-world-record-paul-craig-roberts/

  8. HISTORICVS
    September 13, 2014 at 23:04

    None of this is even remotely new in American politics. Scarcely a month after he
    became Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill requested “forty or fifty” naval destroyers from his “good friend” FDR, with whom he had been secretly corresponding -in violation of U.S. law, incidentally – since the previous autumn, to use in the war Britain had declared against its hated economic rival Germany. But the U.S. was forbidden as a declared neutral power by the 1907 Hague Convention to sell armaments to belligerents. Title 18 of the U.S. Law Code also explicitly forbade “the fitting out, arming, or procuring of any vessel with the intent that it shall be employed in the service of a foreign state to cruise or commit hostilities against any state at which the United States is at peace.” Section 3, title 5 of the 1917 Espionage Act further criminalized the supplying of a war vessel to any nation at war with another. The 1937 Neutrality Act, which passed by an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress, required the President to declare an embargo on the shipment of all war materiel to all warring nations, and even forbade American citizens to purchase government bonds issued by belligerent foreign states.

    But U.S. Attorney General and Roosevelt crony Robert Jackson delivered the opinion in the summer of 1940 that the President could not only supply warships to Britain in violation of these laws but he could do so without the necessity of securing Congressional approval for what amounted to a de facto declaration of war against Germany, and fifty American destroyers were soon on their way to Britain. And this same Jackson would be named in 1946 to dispense impartial “justice” at the show trials of Germany’s defeated leaders at Nuremberg.

  9. Hillary
    September 13, 2014 at 15:38

    ” The media, from which U.S. citizens take most of their information on government behavior, are themselves subject to the influence of the same special interests that stalk the halls of power in Washington, D.C. ”
    says Lawrence Davidson .

    As clearly delineated by the 1946 Nuremberg Judgment, a war of aggression, such as committed by the US against Afghanistan , Libya ,Iraq etc etc “is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from all other crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
    The same standard must apply to the United States.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYk_hgnsgo0

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