Monday, November 24, 2014

Plus ça change: Are human rights modern-day colonialism?

Reading through Anghie's (rather brief) exposition on some of the writings of Francisco de Vitoria--widely considered the pioneer of international law--one cannot but be struck by the parallels that can be drawn between his thinking more than five centuries ago and the doctrines informing some of the most recent of global developments.

When the Spanish encountered the "Indians" (Native Americans), they were unsure how to relate to them.  A common error is made in this regard by believing that the former viewed the latter ex ante as less than human.  That was not the case: De Vitoria and his contemporaries considered the natives fully human.  They also acknowledged that they were "civilized," in that they had discernible values, systems of governance and societal order, capacity to interact with others, etc.  The natives were, accordingly, fully human, equal in their humanity to the Spanish.  However, the Spanish recognized that the natives' values system was at prodigious variance with their own, and the question ineluctably arose of how to reconcile them (if possible) or whose system would take precedence (if not).

De Vitoria astutely sidestepped the prevalent dogma at the time that all authority was ultimately traceable to a "god," or, more plausibly, the "god's" earthly representative (the pope).  The reasoning was that the natives had never heard of Christianity and could hence not be held liable under its injunctions.  He thus fell back on the (Aquinian) notion of natural law, i.e. an objective, ubiquitous set of rules and values immanent in all human beings.  De Vitoria termed its contemporary incarnation as ius gentium.  Here was the rub: He posited that, whereas ius gentium was universal, the Spanish had, in a manner of speaking, "perfected" it.  By implication, the natives required assistance to self-realize the truism, benefits, and execution of ius gentium, and it was the Spaniards' duty to proffer that guidance and help.  Crucially, any opposition was deemed unreasonable: If the norms of ius gentium were the perfection of thought and practice for all humankind, then any opposition to it was a fortiori retrograde, reactionary, and progress-retarding, and, accordingly, had to be staunched... - by any means necessary.  On that view, by extirpating dissent to the process of inculcation of ius gentium among the natives, the Spanish were doing them a major favor (even if that "favor" ended up manifesting itself in the form of blatant theft and ruthless genocide).

The analogy with modern times is glaring.  What was ius gentium in the days of de Vitoria is the conceptualization of putatively "universal" human rights (liberal democratic governance, rule of law, separation of powers, equality of the sexes, various freedoms (thought speech, etc.), protection of minorities, and so forth) today.  These values--just as ius gentium of old--are a product of evolution of the Western thought, and have been institutionalized by means of international organizations (e.g. the U.N.), which, themselves, are a product of Western politics.

The U.N. has promulgated such values through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants, and other instruments.  The Europeans states have embraced even higher normative standards in the form of the E.U.'s Charter of Fundamental Rights and the E.C.H.R.  The O.A.S. has its own charter as does the A.U.  A.S.E.A.N. and the Arab League also compiled declarations, though these have been rebuked for falling short of the "universal" values.

The question is what happens when a subject deviates from these "universal" norms.  That can be due to e.g. its cultural specificities or economic particularities.  The Arab Charter on Human Rights, for instance, fails to guarantee equal treatment of women and discriminates against non-citizens' basic rights.  A.S.E.A.N.'s attempt has met with even more strident criticism for omitting some of the most longstanding, fundamental protections or providing conspicuous and numerous loopholes to evade them.  These, however, are difficult to challenge directly, being that they are endorsed by a multiplicity of quite powerful states.  There is an entire official (government) and semi-official (N.G.O.s) "industry" centered around producing reports and conducting campaigns concerning individual states' adherence to the human right principles.  Which principles?  The "universal" ones, but of course.  And where the presumptive "international society" (read: the Western-led international organizations) can, it does its utmost to introduce as many of these norms as possible to the areas under its control (e.g. Timor-Leste, Kosovo, Iraq, etc.).  Harking back to de Vitoria, opposition to such endeavors is excoriated as backward, unhelpful, and, yes, hostile.  Though such hostility is no longer countered with genocide, its protagonists are excluded from all nation-building processes and, depending on the extent and quality of their opposition, may be subjected to anything from imprisonment to "daisy-cutters."

The issue at the heart of this discourse is what the A.S.E.A.N. Declaration unabashedly makes reference to: the notion of "cultural relativism."  It is an idea with which even a cursory observer of current affairs is familiar, to wit, that every society has a right (indeed, a human right!) to practice and safeguard the values prevailing in that society, even if these diverge considerably from the alleged "universal" values.  That idea is espoused by such diverse actors as autocratic regimes, leftist academics, Western leaders (still reeling under the burden of colonial baggage), and, indeed, a great many people in the type of societies in the docket, including those (e.g. women) who would benefit from a conferral of the "universal" rights on them.  Who, the trope goes, made those rights "universal" and with what justification?  What should give the (Western or West-tainted) powers the right to, yet again, impose their views on the sovereign peoples of the world?  Did we learn nothing from the brutalities of centuries of colonialist practice?

The opposing view is that of the "soft bigotry" of lowered expectations.  The contention here is that the "universal" values are indeed superior to--termed, for simplicity's sake--regional values, and that attempting to equalize the worthiness and merit of the two bespeaks racism, for it implies that the "regionals" are not deserving of enjoying the same liberties and rights as those fortunate enough to be living in, basically, the Western(-modeled) countries.  Far from striving to eschew the aggregate of the colonialist enterprise, "cultural relativism" does the opposite: It perpetuates the "natives'" inferiority.

The crux of the matter, therefore, is the status of the "universal" set of human rights norms in comparison to the others.  Is it--its misnomer notwithstanding--just one of many acceptable (which itself is a normative term) standards or is it the ideal toward whose truly universal implementation to aim?

Descrying a definitive answer to this is impossible.  The Western body politic is petrified of doing or saying anything remotely reminiscent of colonial practices (further affected by the anomie plaguing its society, in which any kind of judgment is unwelcome).  The assorted Third World tyrants are keen to maintain the status quo, which is greatly strengthened by illiberal practices passed off as "local culture."  Many ordinary people in those societies, too, vehemently oppose change.  (That is by no means unprecedented: Some of the most ornery opponents of the Suffragette movement in the West were precisely women.  For instance, tales abound of female prison wardens being far more brutal toward incarcerated women's rights activists than their male counterparts.  Scores of women, too, made public speeches and engaged in other types of campaign denouncing the Suffragettes.)  Who is entitled to deem one system of values better or worse than others, on what basis, and pursuant to what criteria?

Meanwhile, child marriages are rampant.  So is marital rape.  Cheap child labor supports entire economies.  Homosexuals are hanged, "apostates" beheaded, "adulterers" stoned, juveniles imprisoned with adults, "blasphemers" lynched, girls denied access to basic education.  The Gulf Cooperation Council states openly practice what can only be described as modern-day slavery.  Tens of thousands of people are locked up without any due process, including for political slights and "thoughtcrime."  Tens of millions have no recourse to justice against gross excesses by state power.  Hundreds of millions are unable to have any input on who determines the course of their lives.  Do those individuals not deserve the quality of life that those born in other places in the world are fortunate enough to be able to take for granted?  Should those so blessed not assay to help the them?

If the latter narrative is embraced, there will inevitably arise resistance, including from among the "natives."  How should it be addressed: the way of the Spanish or differently?  Is a universalization of human rights necessarily a zero-sum endeavor, viz, either the current state of affairs is accepted or the errant societies are brought into line, even manu militari if need be?

Might the answer lie in gradual, nuanced--yet insistently, doggedly, confidently, continually driven--change employing methods such as Joseph Nye's "soft power"?  That could take generations, meanwhile condemning billions to continued suffering and inferior life quality.  Conversely, rapid, revolutionary tactics could backfire (q.v. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and other, less pronounced, cases in Africa), occasioning conflict whose immediate ramifications would be far more detrimental than the invidious conditions at present.

One conclusion does seem inevitable: The "universal" norms of human rights are superior and should be adopted and practiced globally.  How that is actualized is a different matter, but de Vitoria's strategy is not an option.
© 2014 Michael L.S.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

In defense of academic method and inquiry

The University of Manchester annually organizes a postgraduate conference in law.  (This year's was held at the end of October at the Old Trafford.)  It is an enjoyable all-day event, where selected doctoral students present their ongoing research in a supportive, semi-formal environment, devoid of the pressures of more rigid "peer-reviewed" conferences.  The "rules" are more relaxed, in that e.g. a presenter speaks for a full half hour whereupon there follows a fairy generous Q&A part.  As there were quite a few presenters, the session is divided into parallel panels, and the attendees chose to patronize the one in the morning and the one in the afternoon they envision to be of the most interest or otherwise stimulating.

Most of the ones I saw were highly thought-provoking and certainly worthy foci for academic inquiry.  There was one exploring "domestic violence" experienced by underage women in abusive relationships.  Another discussed the relevance of the current narcotics legislation--particularly the classification of substances--vis-a-vis the so-called "legal highs."  Yet another explored the utility of the concept of "money-laundering," both legally and societally.  (The latter evinced an interesting, if somewhat unconvincing, point that small-time money-launderers (e.g. street-level drug-pushers) sometimes proceed to invest their laundered funds into legitimate businesses.  Entrepreneurs'R'Us!)  One presentation though caught my undivided attention, and for all the wrong reasons.

A young man assayed to "reframe" the wanton, gluttonous riots that beset parts of Great Britain back in 2011.  In his view, apart from practically a given that the initial riots were justified due to the police killing an unarmed man, both those and the subsequent mushrooming riots were pretty much legitimate manifestations of indignation by--you can easily guess the part that follows--"victims" of "marginalization" and "disenfranchisement" of the, naturally, lower (lowest?) communal strata.

How did he figure that out?  Well, he interviewed those who had gotten arrested in the aftermath of the riots, and discovered that the preponderance of them had long had alcohol, drugs, domestic, etc. problems.  In a most unusual turn of events, they also happened to be "poor" and jobless.  Not only were they "victims" who were understandably (if not legitimately, at least not wholly legitimately) expressing their frustrations with the inequity and iniquity that is modern Great Britain, but the riots were not "mindless," as routinely portrayed in the media, nor were the rioters merely brutal thugs.  Indeed, an anecdote was proffered about how one scumbag--sorry, "victim" of "oppression" by the "system"--was about to throw a brick through the window front of a charity shop, when another "victim" thwarted him in that mission on the basis that their beef was with such faceless corporate pigs as the banks and big businesses.  Because, you see, vandalizing a Barclays or a Tesco is fine; a mom-and-pop store is apparently not.  (No explication as to the grounds for an objective evaluation of such conscience-based, hence totally normative, judgments was adduced.)

Rather prosaically and anticlimactically by this stage, quite a few choice words were reserved for the police and the government.  The latter (ab)used the ensuing prosecutions as a show of force, whereas the former engaged in unpalatable breaches of privacy and the hallowed "human rights" of the participants.  How exactly did the police do that?  Firstly, it plastered the faces of the suspects all over posters and billboards, including on vans driving around the city.  That, ladies and gentlemen, the presenter in short shrift repudiated as a revolting invasion of the suspects' privacy.  He then explained how the police was able to identify those it went on to apprehend by reason of their having had previous dealings with the police (read: they were "known" to the police).  Thus, the narrative goes, the police perpetuated the vicious cycle of "victimhood" of those who were (and are) already among the most "vulnerable."  Besides, does it not stand to reason that those who had already been chewed up and spat out by The System(TM) would be only too alacritous to rage against it, given an opportunity!?!  All that was rounded off with some statistics about the conviction, incarceration, and remission (reoffending) rates, the corollary of which was the "prison does not work."

That, folks, is an example of doctoral-level thinking.  One is tempted to weep uncontrollably in sheer despair.

If you could detect a soupcon of sarcasm and an overall casual tone in the foregoing, I congratulate you on your perspicacity.  True: I am finding it difficult to write about this with the detached severity reserved for academic discourse.  The reason is simple: With due respect to the gentleman in question, the above is dilettante hokum, in content and reasoning, more apposite to be found in a two-bit samizdat flier by a college Marxist appreciation club than the dissertation by a law doctoral candidate at a global-top-50 university.

The entire presentation was an orgy of the most extreme left-wing dogma, lacking even cursory mention of counterpoints and nuance, let alone a thorough treatment and critical analysis of the same.  The "novelty" of the whole schtick was supposed to be embodied in the fact that it sought to depart from the established tableau of the rioters as criminals and of the riots as brainless, meaningless violence.  It seems that--just as is the case in journalism--aspiring (and not just those!) academics make their names either by producing high-quality work or by being outrageous.

A county court judge who was in the audience ably rebuked the presenter for his assertion that "prison does not work."  She enjoined him about the use of prison not merely as a locus of rehabilitation (by extension, wherein appropriate treatment is rendered to ensure there is no remission to a life of crime) but also as one of punishment.  In that regard, prison indeed does work: The miscreants are removed from the society, protecting the latter from the former's continued pernicious malfeasance.

Then there is the matter of the candidate's very sketchy methodology.  Why did he not assay to interview those who rioted but were not arrested?  Could their motivation have been not pushback against putative "victimization" but something more trivial, yea, possibly wanton violence?  Come to think of it, what is the ratio of arrested vs. not-arrested rioters: How representative is the presenter's study group of Manchester's rioters as a whole?

But the presentation evidenced a much more insidious problem, one increasingly visible in academia.  It used to be the problem that students grew out of in the early stages of their undergraduate studies.  Now, apparently it is observable among graduate students and even among seasoned academics, and it is this: prejudice... - or, if more detailed an explanation be necessary: espousing and exhibiting propaganda and rhetoric in lieu of objective, impassive, neutral research and analysis.

It was readily apparent that the presenter had formulated his conclusions before he had even conceived of his research, let alone embarked on it.  Indeed, his dissertation is predicated on his personal dogma, not on the findings pursuant to extensive, comprehensive, analytical study.  Epistemological arguments about the plausibility or otherwise of truly objective research aside, striving to illuminate a research question by prejudging it and then weaving the argument retrospectively to fit the predetermined denouement is surely the very antithesis of academic inquiry.

Back when I was a lecturer in rhetoric and research, I always endeavored to impress upon my (mostly freshmen and sophomore) students the indispensability of approaching a research area and the subsequent processes with an open mind.  Sometimes a researcher knows a lot about the researched field, sometimes less, sometimes nothing.  Sometimes they think they know a lot.  Whatever the case, the scientific method is clear: One approaches the research as if one truly knows nothing, at least in terms of the possible outcomes.  The mindset ought to be: I do not know anything about how this will turn out, I do not know what I will find; I will therefore search wide and deep for the answers, wherever the search may lead me.

You do not include your opinions, you do not choose which evidence you like, you do not discard facts you dislike.  You are not down in the thick of it, participating in it or influencing it.  You are high above the fray, espying the goings-on you witness, describing them, and attempting to find as many possible explanations for what you see (i.e. you hypothesize).  You can use primary sources and your own experiments and/or secondary sources; but you keep digging in all directions, you keep asking questions, you keep wondering.  You then set about trying rigorously to at once prove and disprove your hypotheses, until one remains standing: That becomes a theory (in the academic, scientific sense), i.e. your conclusion.  Sometimes the conclusion conforms to your own intuitions and views; at other times it might not.  But the conclusions must at all costs be arrived at independently from your intuitions, opinions, prejudices, experiences, and other views, conscious or unconscious.

Basing academic work on opinion is an insult to generations of academics.  One does not require advanced education to put opinion on paper; rudimentary literacy skills are sufficient for such an exercise.  The whole point of graduate studies is to detach every facet of oneself from one's work.  Failing that, one does not end up with a thesis or dissertation worth its name, but with something not unlike an op-ed in Cosmo.

© 2014 Michael L.S.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Are you in or out already!?

Great Britain's animosity toward the European Union (and, for that matter, most things Continental) is longstanding and antedates the formation of Union itself by a margin measured in centuries.  Brits always had a distaste for the rest of the Europeans; in fact, one can hardly think of any nation on the Continent toward which Brits feel any affinity.  Europhobia--mostly masquerading as "Euroskepticism," and colloquially denoting an opposition to formal European integration--has been part and parcel of the British political (and, by extension, legal) life since the country acceded to the European Union forty or so years ago.  The hostility toward the E.U. unseated some of the most powerful politicians and even whole governments (the Major administration being the most infamous instance).  With the inexorable popularization of the United Kingdom Independence Party (U.K.I.P.), Europhobia has broken through to the fore of the political discourse and has now come to vex all the three mainstream factions, eager to amortize U.K.I.P.'s successes by animating their own rhetoric, burnishing their anti-European credentials, and disseminating promises about "getting tough on [insert putative Euro-generated problem here]."

U.K.I.P. is agitating for a referendum to be organized as soon as possible on the straightforward matter: Does the voter wish Great Britain to exit the European Union?.  Though rarely averred explicitly, U.K.I.P. proposes that leaving the E.U. would not entail severing all contacts with the organization, but that the interaction would be downgraded to one of trade and commerce.  The incumbent British premier, David Cameron, is also sounding out (or, as the case might be, sounding off) about his country "renegotiating" the terms of its engagement with the Union.

The proponents of Great Britain's independence from the E.U. commonly propound the following arguments:
  • The European Union is undemocratic and unaccountable.
  • It is expensive, with the E.U. demanding "disproportionate" contributions to its budget from Great Britain.
  • It is the provenance of innumerable quantities of migrants, who augment the British population count, infringe on British values, and negatively impact its economy
  • It saddles the country with petty regulations, such as those appertaining to Occupational Safety and Health or the apocryphal tale about the "correct" curvature of supermarket bananas.
  • It infringes on British "sovereignty," particularly with regard to the stupefying decisions in human rights cases ascribed to some amorphous "European courts."
  • It causes Great Britain to sacrifice possible closer relations with its Commonwealth.
(The foregoing is an illustrative, not an exhaustive, list.)

The ineluctable conclusion is that the country leaving the E.U. would be a bonanza in economic, political, cultural, sociological, and many other terms.

However, the Europhobes ignore or do not even reckon with the following:
  • If the E.U. is "undemocratic," what is Great Britain?  It is a country with a bicameral parliamentary system.  Yet, one of those chambers is fully appointed and appointments are made on very arbitrary, capricious, opaque, and all around dubious grounds.  The other chamber's deputies are elected through a system where a faction that garners scarcely 40% of the popular vote translates that into holding more than 60% of the seats.  Lastly, the head of state is an individual who holds that position by nothing other than accident of birth.  The European Union is surely a paragon of democracy in comparison.
  • If the E.U. is "unaccountable," then what is the British parliament?  Is one seriously contending that the government in London is more "in tune with" someone living in, say, Manchester (let alone Edinburgh or Derry) than are the organs of the European Union!?
  • There has been much acrimony about the E.U.'s recent demand for extra remittance to its quasifederal budget from Great Britain on account of the latter's well-performing economy.  If that is somehow egregious, why is it not equally egregious that the taxes from the affluent Home Counties are deployed to fund the welfare payments of the putative poor or that they are redistributed to the more indigent areas in the north of the country?  After all, a Sussex taxpayer hardly has more of a connection to a politician in Brussels or a Greek in Athens than to a Scot in Glasgow or to an Irishman in Belfast.
  • Further regarding the allegedly exorbitant cost of the E.U. upon the longsuffering British taxpayer, it turns out that each Brit pays less than a hundred euros per annum to the E.U.  Considering the ability to travel (and settle) in 27 states without any restrictions, avail--freely--of all those states' health care (whose quality very often exceeds that offered in G.B.), and accrue indirect benefits of Great Britain's membership in the Union, that is a pretty good deal.
  • As far as immigration, formal studies are unequivocal in determining that European Union migrants are net contributors to the British economy; yes, even after the "flood" of impecunious and supposedly indolent Romanians and Bulgarians.  Moreover, E.U. migrants share many of the majority Brits' demographics (ethnicity, religion, cultural and historical heritage, etc.).  The drain on the economy is not effected by E.U. migrants.  Nor are E.U. migrants the ones who are slow or ill-disposed to integrate in the British society.  Nor are they the ones whose values and culture frequently clash with the natives'.  The preponderance of the antecedent would be non-E.U. immigrants, and withdrawing from the E.U. will do nothing to stem the tide of them.  Indeed, Great Britain would lose many of its most industrious, productive, and best educated residents by withdrawing.
  • It is correct to observe that the E.U. has issued edicts that boggle the mind; howbeit, in many cases it was the zeal of the national (and particularly municipal) organs that caused E.U. regulations and directives to be implemented in absurd and frustrating ways.  In any event, do the Europhobes credulously argue that exiting the Union would or could cause the "meddlesome" Union diktats to be rescinded?  If Great Britain is to continue trading with the E.U., its goods and services will have to conform to Union-wide standards, and that means that the "busybody rules" instituted per E.U. laws will have to remain in situ.
  • As regards the human rights charge, Europhobes often (whether due to ignorance or out of intellectual dishonesty) conflate the European Court of Justice with the European Court of Human Rights.  The former is an E.U. organ and its decisions have occasioned groundbreaking progress in e.g. consumers' rights, whereas the latter is not in any way connected to the European Union, belonging as it does to a completely separate set of treaty instruments.  Withdrawing from the E.U. would in no way rein in "human rights gone mad" pursuant to either the European Court of Human Rights' decisions or the Human Rights Act-inspired British courts' judgments (that Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law).  For that to happen, Great Britain would have to exit the E.C.H.R. mechanism, the political and legal fallout from which would be far more perilous than that of exiting the E.U.
  • Concerning the Commonwealth, firstly, by "Commonwealth" what is commonly meant are Canada and Australia; its other significant member states are--not to put too fine a point on it--economic and political basket cases.  A question then insuperably arises: How can it make more sense to trade with countries on the other side of the world with populations numbering a few ten million than with a bloc just across la Manche whose population exceeds a half billion?  Besides, what makes the Europhobes believe that the Canadians and Australians are idly sitting around just waiting for the "mother country" to come knocking on the door seeking to rekindle ties of yore which opportunity they would eagerly and readily exploit?
  • What, therefore, practical benefits from withdrawing from the European Union do the "Euroskeptics" envision, other than being able to pull up the drawbridge and wave their flag again on their isolated little island?  Can they genuinely be so naive as to aver in earnest that exiting the E.U. would render Great Britain once more the place of, per John Major, "long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers[, ... 'o]ld maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist' and [...] Shakespeare [...] read even in school."?

For the record, many of us outsiders would indeed very much prefer Great Britain to exit wholesale.  After all, ever since joining, the state has been nothing but an albatross around the Union's neck, retarding its progress and subverting its operations.  Great Britain, as an enfant terrible, forever insists on opt-outs from this and rebates from that.  As if being the one Trojan horse is insufficient, the country is one of the foremost (possibly the only) advocates of allowing Turkey (yes, Turkey!) to become a full member-state.  If that is not proof positive that Great Britain wishes to corrode the E.U. from within, it is hard to imagine what might be.

The legal grounds for a British exit are incontestable.  The E.U. treaties are just that, and a country can derogate from or fully withdraw its consent from a treaty at any time.  The political repercussions and implications for Great Britain's international reputation (q.v. Guzman's theory of compliance) are another matter, but that is for the British people to ponder.

It is rather transparent the fact that the British society--such as it might be--has not yet reconciled itself to the loss of its empire and to the profound societal changes culminating in what many would describe as a state of anomie, all of which came to pass within two or three generations.  Great Britain went from being an imperial power that controlled a fourth of the planet and in which everybody "knew their place" to an island living on past glories, playing second fiddle to the superpowers that be, and having its values diluted by the newly-empowered, irreverent lower "classes" and heterogeneous immigrants alike.  That is quite a humiliation and it is natural for one coping mechanism to consist of harking back to yesteryear and latching onto whatever doctrine might be promoted as able to recreate the environment from that bygone era.

However, that will be impossible.  The world has irrevocably changed and the notion that a state such as Great Britain (and for how long even that, i.e. before it disintegrates owing to an inevitable future Scottish referendum?) can be more successful alone than as part of a strong commercial and political union is nothing short of utter nonsense.  It does boggle the mind though that even many reasonable and educated British people's kneejerk reaction is one of such myopic ignorance and parochialism.

If Great Britain does come to its senses before it is too late, it will undergo the type of radical reform that the Germans subjected themselves to (not necessarily always of own volition) in the aftermath of the Second World War.  Germany is today a modern, confident, prosperous, forward-looking state right at the center of the European Union, often "calling the shots" as its distinguished insider.  What a contrast to the petulant, snobby, uncooperative Great Britain.  It does not need to be that way, but it will have to be a collective British decision.

One thing is certain: The status quo is untenable.

© 2014 Michael L.S.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Condition: Academic detachment from reality. Prescription: a dose of reality

Last month I attended a Ph.D. "master class" in which eight or so doctoral candidates presented their work-in-progress, preliminary findings, context of their research, etc.  One presentation in particular caught my attention.

A young lady is examining compliance with international humanitarian law (the Geneva Conventions et alia).  Her hypothesis is that the laws in question are often(?) not followed on the battlefield because military personnel receive inadequate training in this regard; in particular, the imperative of adherence to these provisions is not impressed upon them with sufficient urgency and sobriety.  If only--she contends--soldiers were instructed more formidably in how critical it is to comply with the norms of international humanitarian law, the likelihood of instances of abuse such as the Abu 3'rayb prisoner mistreatment scandal or the more recent contretemps involving Sgt. Alexander Blackman would have been minimized if not altogether averted.

As I was absorbing her polemic, it struck me again how alarmingly insular and detached from the real world academia is becoming.  College students and academics have been castigated for being "out of touch" on many issues.  An apposite example is the now decades-in-the-making promotion of a happy-go-lucky mode of education for children that accentuates their right to personhood, individuality, having fun, and so forth, which critics claim (now supported by hard research) deprives them of the structure, discipline, knowledge, and skills that they require to grow into both competent workers and functional adults.  Prison reform, human rights, civil liberties, sexual equality, and immigration are some other matters that lend themselves to such criticism, too.

The biggest difficulty with the issue in the docket is that it is being theorized on by someone who has no first- or even second-hand experience of the battlefield.  It is not only unrealistic, but also egregious and insulting, for an adolescent ensconced in an armchair in Manchester to be prescribing to grown men and women situated in the midst of war how they ought to behave.

Imagine, if you will, the reality of the theater of war: Mines and R.P.G.s are exploding left and right, dozens of bullets are making the cracking sound inches away from your ears, you have witnessed people who an hour ago were laughing and planning Christmas with their families blown to smithereens a few feet in front of you, your friends' guts are spilling out of their bodies or their limbs are gone...

There is no Undo button to press anywhere.

There is no Pause button.

There is no Quit button.

Somehow you make it out alive and later on you come across a wounded enemy combatant who mere minutes previously had been launching grenades at you and spraying you with bullets.  Can anyone seriously argue that in such a situation you can be reasonably expected to engage in an objective, dispassionate, detached introspection of the Geneva Conventions!?!  "Ludicrous" does not begin to describe it!

I am not even remotely impugning the importance of both the existence and enforcement of robust international rules governing engagement in armed conflicts.  Wanton destruction, revenge, brutalization of civilians or even coldblooded abuse of enemy combatants are to be unreservedly condemned, outlawed, and censured.  However, there has to be a dose of hard realism present when presuming to prescribe the behavior of individuals placed under unimaginable levels of personal, existential stress.  P.T.S.D. is a recognized condition, which affects the sufferers profoundly; this has to be accounted for in any discourse seeking to regulate the conduct of those likely to be severely afflicted by it.

After all, many of those insisting that soldiers should abide by the international humanitarian law even in the most stressful circumstances are among the first to characterize many types of criminals and societal transgressors as "victims" who should first and foremost be helped address their multifarious problems, and be punished only as an afterthought and certainly with leniency.  Can they not extend the same kind of consideration to those who underwent experiences the "disenfranchised" and "marginalized" rioters of 2011 or violent robbers afflicted by assorted "substance addictions" cannot even fathom?

© 2014 Michael L.S.

John Dugard's Melland Schill Lecture at the Manchester International Law Center (M.I.L.C.)

October 15 John Dugard delivered a lecture at the University of Manchester. It was organized by the University's International Law Center as part of its resuscitated Melland Schill series. The lecture's topic was statehood. In particular, Dugard identified the principal obstacles faced by aspiring states in achieving recognition, furnished the basic history behind some of those obstacles, and proffered a possible solution.  The main themes were the principle of territorial integrity, the prohibition of secession, and uti possidetis.

I enjoyed the content a lot.  The brief historical précis concerning the decolonization of Latin America and the emergence of nation states on that continent was particularly intriguing being that it is history very seldom taught or (curiously) of only scant interest to those of us outside the region.  The leitmotif pervading the talk was that political considerations almost invariably seem to subordinate international law--such as there is--in the context of state recognition.  That was certainly a shrewd (and frustrating) observation.

However, I could not help but feel most uneasy about several facets of Dugard's talk.
  • Dugard lamented how the Badinter Arbitration Commission--formed in the early 1990s to essentially demarcate the borders of the erstwhile constituent republics of Yugoslavia--decided to ignore the demographics of the region in the course of its proceedings.  In particular, he reproached it for overlooking the existence and relevance of the autonomous regions of Kosovo, Republic of Srpska, and Krajina.
    • The above betrays an ignorance (or, at least, ignoring) on Dugard's part of some basic historical facts.
    1. The Badinter Committee was in operation between 1991 and 1993.
    2. Kosovo is the only one of the three entities that has any historical precedent or merit.  It was a constitutionally-recognized autonomous region within the former Yugoslavia.  The other two never held any such or similar status.
    3. Krajina was proclaimed in 1991, around the time the Committee began its work.  Its existence owed to the success of local Serb militias (with semi-official support of the regular Yugoslav military forces) in seizing control of sections of the territory formally part of Croatia qua a federal Yugoslav republic.  No entity such as Krajina--de iure or de facto--had ever existed on the lands claimed by the instant entity.
    4. The Republic of Srpska was formally and legally established in 1995 (i.e. well after the Committee had wound down its operations) pursuant to the Dayton Accords, although it had existed in some form and within constantly shifting borders since 1992 on the same foundations as the aforementioned Krajina.
    • The question arises: On what basis does Dugard ascribe legal or even political equivalence to Kosovo on the one hand, and Srpska and Krajina on the other?
    • Is Dugard seriously arguing that an ability to conquer and continued control of a territory is or ought to be recognizable under international law; yea, that it should be rewarded with arguably the highest conceivable privilege in international law and relations: recognition of statehood?
    • Does he seek to roll back one of the preeminent pillars of international law and relations, that took literally centuries to crystallize and solidify: the prohibition on the use of force?  Is he advocating we revert to the brute ius victoriae?
    • Lastly, is he not at the very least precipitate in chastising the Badinter Committee for ignoring "facts on the ground" when those facts entailed fluid and ambiguous developments contemporaneous with and even postdating the Committee's work?
  • He--reasonably, in my view--denounced the possibility of carving up Africa along tribal lines, because doing so would have entailed the genesis of hundreds, if not thousands, of states.  That would be impractical, unwieldy, and most probably beyond political pale.
    • By arguing against using demographics in generating states in Africa, Dugard betrays breathtaking hypocrisy.  Why should the national aspirations of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been acknowledged and accommodated by the Badinter Committee, but not those of countless African tribes?
    • Are Africans' wishes qualitatively inferior to the European Serbs'?  Is Africans' sense of identity, cohesion, and belonging somehow less worthy of recognition than the Serbs'?
    • Ultimately, the many African tribes' national desires could have been acceded to far more easily and with better justification (at least historically speaking, and possibly even legally) when setting up brand new states a few decades ago than could maiming Croatia or Bosnia, both of which have a long and august history as states.
    • Where is the consistency: Are or are not demographics (which are usually synonymous with ethnicity or nationality) to constitute a major, the main, or even the sole determinant in demarcation of states' borders and/or in state recognition?
  • He advanced a solution whereby an international tribunal would be established, which would examine each petition for statehood in its own right, and produce a nonbinding declaration of the merits of each such case, presumably for the consideration of the Security Council and other international actors.
    • This notion was verbalized by Dugard literally a half hour after he had narrated the story of Kosovo and the relevant advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the matter.  In the event, he pointed out that the I.C.J. had issued an opinion of the case, which it described as sui generis, and which the Security Council promptly decided to ignore.
    • The problem here is obvious.  Dugard wants a tribunal; the I.C.J. is a tribunal (indeed, most would consider it the foremost, most authoritative and illustrious tribunal in the world).  Dugard wants it to examine each case of prospective statehood on its own merits; that is precisely what the I.C.J. did with Kosovo.  Dugard wants the new tribunal to issue nonbinding opinions; check: It is what the I.C.J. did in Kosovo, too.
    • Apart, therefore, from the fact that we already have a tribunal that does exactly what Dugard proposes, the solution he advances does not address the core challenge: Whether it be the I.C.J. or Dugard's fabled new institution, what is to ensure that the Security Council does not ride a carriage and horses through its opinions just as transpired in the case of Kosovo?
    • Furthermore, the antecedent problem aside, does the world seriously need yet another expensive talking shop?  Would Dugard like to justify its establishment to the taxpayers who would foot the bill?
  • He made repeated references to Palestinians and "Palestine" as well as the role of the United States in world affairs, which he casts in--to put it mildly--an unflattering light.  Those remarks were in each instance laden with political connotations and messages.
    • Dugard's rabid anti-Israeli paroxysms are well documented and need no revisiting*.  Regardless of whether or to what extent he is justified in this regard, it is nothing short of outrageous that while mentioning "Palestine" at least a half dozen times, he did not throw even an innuendo the way of, say, the Taiwanese or the Tibetans.  The Kurds got a single, rather perfunctory, mention.  For someone who likes to fly the banner of equality and justice, Dugard propagates a world wherein some peoples are conspicuously more equal and important than others.
    • Leaving aside thus what can only be deemed hypocrisy and favoritism, by making continual loaded political comments, Dugard undermines his own argument.  If the problem of state recognition (the inequity, iniquity, inequality, inconsistency, illegality, etc.) owes to geostrategic and political deliberations of the powers that be, then what is the value of injecting his own political dogma into the argument?  If there is too much politics and not enough law in the field of state recognition as it is, then should Dugard not be aiming to redress the imbalance instead of perpetuating it himself?

The foregoing certainly served to "put a damper" on the entire experience.  One expects an international theorist and practitioner of Dugard's stature to demonstrate a higher degree of professionalism--particularly as far as academic neutrality and probity--than showcased in casu.

Nevertheless, he adverted to a thought-provoking and paradoxical issue, to wit: Being a state is the basic prerequisite for an ability to participate in the formation of international legal instruments and mechanisms.  Yet, becoming a state is not at all determined by that selfsame international law, but by narrow, unpredictable, and often petty politics.

Law concerning state recognition exists, most notably the Montevideo Convention's four unambiguous, fairly easily ascertainable criteria.  Yet, due to politics, entities that satisfy those criteria (including the Palestinians) have not been elevated to the hallowed club of the "international community" nor do they have much prospect of being admitted in the foreseeable future or beyond, whereas some who do not fulfill one or even more of the conditions have.

Should we just reconcile ourselves to the reality of Realpolitik and accept that law will always take a backseat in this regard, or is there a scenario whereby states can be persuaded to follow the objective letter of the law?  That, of course, is not merely the dilemma informing the matter of statehood and recognition, but many other aspects of international law.  Indeed, one could persuasively argue that there is no such thing as international law per se, but merely states' obligations in an international context, which states adhere to or not according to political dynamic.

* To illustrate: A day later, while commenting on a doctoral candidate's presentation on general ius in bello, out of literally thousands of blood-curdling examples of its violations, Dugard invoked the one single modern-day documented case of an Israeli Army's rabbi (and a retired one, at that) who called for an indiscriminate killing of Palestinians.  Whatever his reasons, Dugard clearly has an extremely sharp ax to grind with Israel.

© 2014 Michael L.S.