Friday, February 10, 2012

International law and justice

By New Worker Correspondent

CAN THERE be true international justice when different countries and systems have such different values and concepts of justice?
 This was the theme of an enlightening debate among senior international lawyers and scholars last Friday evening at the Brunei Gallery lecture theatre at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas).
 The debate, entitled “International justice: between impunity and show trials” was chaired by Dr Stephen Hopgood of Soas.
 The main speaker was Stephen Kay QC – the man who had been appointed by the Court at The Hague to defend Slobodan Milosevic, much against Milosevic’s will because he had wanted to defend himself.
 Kay had stepped in at short notice to replace the controversial lawyer Jacques Vergès, who defended Khmer Rouge leaders and Nazi war criminals, as he could not attend because of bronchitis.
 The debate was opened by Finnish lawyer Martti Koskenniemi, international lawyer and a former Finnish diplomat. Currently he is professor of International Law in the University of Helsinki and Director of the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights. He is well known for his critical approach to international law.
 “Every trial is a political trial and a show trial,” he began, “which represents the power hierarchy and set of values of the country.”
 He argued that every trial is a connivance of all parties to agree with and support the ethics of the court.
 Then he went on to speak on the role of the show trial – where everyone knows the outcome before it begins and the purpose of the trial is a political statement. Being the defendant in a show trial does not automatically make them either innocent or guilty but the procedure in the court has little to do with this. And usually far more evidence is brought than necessary in order to lengthen proceedings and keep it in the headlines.
 Stephen Kay agreed with this up to a point. He stressed that the trial of Milosevic had definitely been a show trial to divert world attention from the very illegal Nato bombing of Belgrade – which has never been challenged in any court.
 Milosevic had been aware of this and from his point of view it was hopeless to try to win so instead he tried to do what he could to challenge the legal validity of his accusers.
 Kay also spoke at length on the continual shifting of the definitions of human rights, crimes against humanity in international law – which began at Nuremburg and were controversial at the time – but have shifted with the political winds ever since.
 The question of sovereignty was another thorny issue and international law has now shifted to allow Nato to make military interventions in other countries “to protect civilians” – a pretext that can give them almost carte blanche.
 Other speakers included Polina Levina and Robert Murtfeld and there was a good debate that included many lawyers and law students in the well-filled lecture theatre. There was no concluding statement but the general view seemed that international law was seriously flawed but better than nothing and that it should improve with time.
 It raised many serious points about the power of vested political interests to determine the meaning of justice but did not involve the dialectics of the class struggle.

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