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.
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;ã€€America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.