Tuesday, February 28, 2017

China and Russia Protect Syria’s Assad on Chemical Weapons: A Matter of Priorities

All bets are off when it comes to regulating war. Such a condition is virtually by definition beyond the confines of law. Even international law is but an impotent dwarf next to the raw force of a governmental regime at war—whether with its own citizens or another country. To be sure, the International Criminal Court had by 2017 made a dent in holding some perpetrators of atrocities such as genocide accountable for their deeds. Such efforts were still the exception, unfortunately, when Russia, China, and Bolivia vetoes a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would have penalize Syria’s Issad regime for having used chemical weapons on Syrians. The reasons for the vetoes—and the fact that Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kazakhstan all obstained—implies that holding perpetrators accountable by international means had not yet become a priority at the international level.

Russia’s envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, defended the veto by calling the resolution “politically biased.” He asserted, “This is railroading the draft by the Western troika.”[1] In other words, the Russian government put its rivalry with the West above holding a friend accountable. Only months earlier, the U.S. Government had refused to veto a resolution condemning its friend, Israel, for retroactively legalizing illegal Jewish settlements on private Palestinian land. So it was with some clout that the American ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, accused Russia and China of putting “their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security. . . . It is a sad day for the Security Council when members make excuses for other [members] killing their own people.”[2] What may not be noticed prime facie is the implication that a regime killing its own people is deprioritized when government officials prioritize friendly governments who commit such acts.

What would it take for the world as a whole to attach more importance in terms of other priorities to stopping and preventing crimes against humanity? Even intent to protect the precedent of national sovereignty—something China’s government has made a priority at the U.N.—is a deprioritizing of the crimes that a government commits against its own people and other peoples. The message is that such acts are normal, or at least tolerable. Perhaps it would take only a massive occurrence for the world as a whole to stop and admit that the usual international relations are themselves no longer viable because they are insufficient, given the priority suddenly put on the crimes themselves.  

[1] Somini Sengupta, “Russia and China Veto Penalties on Syria Over Use of Chemical Arms,” The New York Times, February 28, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Israel Legalizes Illegal Settlements on Palestinian Land: On the Toll on the Rule of Law

Israel’s legislature passed a law on February 6, 2017 retroactively legalizing Jewish settlements on privately owned Palestinian land. Incredibly, the state’s own attorney general said he would not defend the new law in court because he had determined the law to unconstitutional and in violation of international law. Anat Ben Nun of an anti-settlement group said the law was “deteriorating Israel’s democracy, making stealing an official policy.”[1] Specifically, the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including those offered financial compensation for the “long term use of their land” but without being able to reclaim their property under the new law, “are not Israeli citizens and cannot vote for candidates for Israel’s Parliament, or Kenesset.”[2] I submit nevertheless that the underlying casualty in this case is the rule of law itself.

Every government enjoys the power of eminent domain, which effectively means that the right of private property is limited in nature rather than absolute. This fact goes to the amount of power that a government potentially has. In the case of the Israeli pro-settlement law on the private property of Palestinians, the rule of law was undercut by the law’s retroactive aspect. To retroactively legalize something illegal weakens law itself in its capacity as prohibition because confidence in the illegality is lessened and thus weakened.

Such a weakening can be invisible when the retroactivity is in popular demand. In the early 1960s, Israel’s highest court declared a 1950 Israeli law to retroactively apply not only temporally, when the state of Israel did not even yet exist, but also as applicable in another sovereign country! Lest this decision seem sordid and utterly devoid of justifiable jurisprudence, even such a dark underbelly can be easily whitewashed or at least overlooked on learning that the decision was against Adolf Eichmann, whom Israel had illegally kidnapped and tried for his significant role in transporting gays, communists, and Jews to the concentration camps in the horrendous systemic atrocity known as the Holocaust. The desire for justice against him easily hid from view the toll on law itself from what probably boiled down to garden-variety vengeance—the notion of law being distorted in the process. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but not when the sweet scent of revenge at the expense of law itself is too alluring. Perhaps the retroactive law in 2017 may also have been fueled by vengeance, given all the hatred between the Palestinians and the Israelis, though in this case the retroactive vengeance was against the oppressed rather than a former oppressor. In both cases, however, the same basic pattern can be observed with respect to the subtle and gradual corruption of the rule of law itself. The power within the reach of a government—any government—is indeed something to beware.

[1] Ian Fisher, “Israel Passes Provocative Legislation to Retroactively Legalize Settlements,” The New York Times, February 7, 2017.
[2] Ibid.