Wednesday, September 22, 2004

World must respect the rule of law

The 59th Session of the United Nations General Assembly opened this week in New York, with a stern warning from the indomitable Kofi Annan...
The United Nations is the indispensable common house of the entire human family. Let's not imagine that, if we fail to make good use of it, we will find any more effective instrument.
Those who believe US military might is the best guarantor of global peace and security, were no doubt rankled by the Secretary General's opening remarks.

But Kofi Annan was only just beginning, his message to the world was forthright and succinct...
We have reached a fork in the road. If you, the political leaders of the world's nations, cannot reach agreement on the way forward, history will take the decisions for you, and the interests of your peoples may go by default.

Whatever challenges we face, the decisions we make must be guided by one "all-important framework - namely the rule of law." The Secretary General cited the vision of "a government of laws and not of men", one that embodies universal "principles of justice" including "legal protection for the poor" and "restraints on the strong, so they cannot oppress the weak."

The origin of law in ancient Mesopotamia, the land we now call Iraq, "was a landmark in mankind's struggle to build an order where, instead of might making right, right would make might." The United Nations was founded on these same principles, he said, "Yet today the rule of law is at risk around the world."

With unwavering nerve, Mr Annan went on to deplore the prevalence of war crimes and crimes against humanity around the world today, noting examples from the Sudan, Uganda, Palestine, Beslan and Iraq, including the "disgraceful abuse" of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Mentioning the war crimes of the US military in the same sentence as terrorist crimes is a bold exercise of impartiality, and one which will iritate the neoimperialist warmongers who regard themselves as being culturally and morally superior to the rest of us.

To drive the point home, Kofi Annan chastised world leaders for "our collective failure to uphold the law, and to instil respect for it in our fellow men and women." He urged all members of the United Nations to do whatever they can to restore that respect.

"We must start from the principle that no one is above the law, and no one should be denied its protection." The notion of equal justice under law, dispensed without fear or favour, lies at the heart of the American Constitution, but is it reflected in America's foreign relations?
Every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home must respect it abroad; and every nation that insists on it abroad must enforce it at home. Yes, the rule of law starts at home. But in too many places it remains elusive. Hatred, corruption, violence and exclusion go without redress.
The idea of a black African telling the mighty US of A, that it should abide by the same rules and standards it seeks to apply to others, is enough to send some patriotic Americans into fits of apoplexy.
The vulnerable lack effective recourse, while the powerful manipulate laws to retain power and accumulate wealth. At times even the necessary fight against terrorism is allowed to encroach unnecessarily on civil liberties.
Powerful words from one who exudes composure and diplomatic restraint, words that carry the full weight of moral and intellectual authority. Mr Annan is, of course, quite right, “at the international level, all states - strong and weak, big and small - need a framework of fair rules, which each can be confident that others will obey.
Where the rule of law is most earnestly invoked, as in the Commission on Human Rights, those invoking it do not always practise what they preach. Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it; and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it.
This is clearly an indirect criticism of the Bush administration's unilateralist approach to international affairs and the contempt for international law that has seriously undermined the credibility of the Security Council and the legitimacy of the United States' foreign policy.

But America is not the only western democracy that should consider itself chastened by the Secretary General. Countries like Britain, Australia and Israel should also pay heed to his warnings, especially if they wish to reverse the slide toward international anarchy and global insecurity.
It is the law, including Security Council resolutions, which offers the best foundation for resolving prolonged conflicts - in the Middle East, in Iraq, and around the world. And it is by rigorously upholding international law that we can, and must, fulfil our responsibility to protect innocent civilians from genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Kofi Annan

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