Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In the News

And now, a few thoughts on a subject I know nothing about. Comments letting me know where I'm wrong are strongly encouraged.

A friend just tipped me off to a proposal to have the Pope arrested when he visits the UK in September, that he might potentially be put on trial there or in the International Criminal Court. This strikes me as ironic, in that the only international judicial organisation I can think of in the Western world before the existence of the ICC was, in fact, the Papacy.

Now, I don't know if the proposal will come to anything; similar suggestions were made to arrest George W. Bush for war crimes during a state visit to Canada, and that of course went nowhere. There seems to be a higher degree of direction here, but I don't know whether the pedophilia in the Church will be seen to amount to a crime against humanity, and doubt whether the British courts have jurisdiction over the Pope. On the other hand, as the articles note, the British did arrest Pinochet, and did issue a warrant against former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Still, I doubt that prosecutions of heads of government will become common in the near future. I tend to think political pressure will lead to the quiet disappearance of such charges. Governments have too much incentive to do business with other governments that may or may not have committed legally questionable acts. But what happens as the near future shades into the more distant future, and a greater amount of legal precedent is set for the definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity? What happens when these things become even harder to sweep under the rug?

As human connective technology grows, as media outlets begin covering everything more intently, as organisation increases among those seeking to bring to justice states and politicians who may have committed crimes — will these sorts of prosecutions begin to succeed? Can the possibility put forward in the first article I linked to, that the powerful should be put on trial just as any citizen, come to pass?

It would be nice to think so. But what happens to international politics as a result? Note that the warrant against Livni, practically, led to the cancellation of a planned visit by her to the UK. Will there be a chilling effect on international diplomacy?

Possibly; but perhaps that would be no bad thing, if properly applied. If states that sponsor war crimes and crimes against humanity are held to account for it, perhaps it results in a lessening of their influence. Perhaps it even means states think twice about sponsoring crimes in the first place. The question really is, will statutes against those crimes not be weakened by governments and individuals seeking to give themselves as much leeway as possible?

It seems to me that if the precedents are there, then the ability to wish them away becomes reduced. If so, then the slow growth of the ability of legal institutions to effectively prosecute these crimes is appropriate -- as the effectiveness of the law increases, so (hopefully) will the ability of the courts to resist political interference. Either way, the establishment of a process by which the powerful are held to legal account can only be positive. My point is just that the institution of this process may not be quick -- but sometimes, evolution is preferable, so long as it gets there in the end.

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