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Book Review

Human rights and global justice - the (official) unofficial version

Crimes against Humanity - the Struggle for Global Justice by Geoffrey Robertson. Pub: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London/New York/Toronto, 1999. Pp: 472. Hbk: UK20.00 / Can$40.00.
Laila Juma

Pablo Picasso’s famous picture Guernica, featured on the cover of this book, is an icon of the human rights and international law movements, a symbol of the cruelty of war. (It portrays the suffering caused by the Germans’ bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish civil war.) However, for those whose appreciation of modern art is limited, it could just as well convey the confusion and incoherence of much contemporary discourse on human rights; this interpretation would make it no less appropriate a cover for this particular book

Crimes against Humanity, which has been greeted as a masterpiece by the liberal lobby, is in fact a pro-western liberal polemic poorly disguised as a serious work of scholarship and analysis. The blurb’s assertion that it is "the first work to weave history, philosophy and international law into a timely and dramatic account of how the human rights idea will come to dominate world politics in the twenty-first century" accurately reflects both the book’s pretentiousness and its confusion.

That, however, is perhaps all that should be expected from its author. Geoffrey Robertson QC is a darling of the international human rights scene. He is a British lawyer known for his human rights work, and also a visiting professor of human rights at London University’s Birkbeck College. However, he is remembered by Muslims in Britain for another reason: his suggestion on a Granada television program, Hypotheticals, in 1989 that the British government should have murdered Imam Khomeini at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in order to prevent its success.

Nonetheless, there are lessons Muslims can learn from this book. It can basically be read as the officially-accepted and promoted western version of ‘the human rights story’. (Like other officially-endorsed ideas in the west, this is assiduously promoted through non-governmental organizations, lobbies, pressure groups and other unofficial channels).

The first section of the book traces the emergence and development of the ‘human rights idea’ from the emergence of the concept of ‘natural rights’ in the writings of medieval and early modern western philosophers, through the ‘enlightenment’, the ‘age of revolutions’ in Europe, the emergence of ‘democratic’ states, and the early international organizations, notably the League of Nations. This is all familiar ground to anyone who has read anything about human rights, and Robertson’s exposition of it is largely routine.

Also familiar ground is much of Robertson’s explanation of the background to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN general assembly on December 10, 1948.

This document is central to the west’s claim to be a promoter and protector of ‘universal’ human rights, and is virtually given the status of scripture. It is, literally, regarded as above criticism, and Robertson is no exception to this. Despite showing how much it owes to the west’s particular historical experience, particularly the excesses of Nazism during the second world war, Robertson is at pains to defend the Declaration from criticism on the ground of western cultural particularism. However, his arguments are so thin as to be self-defeating: its final draft, he points out, emerged from a "geographically and culturally mixed committee on which major contributions were made by the delegates from India, China and the Lebanon, with further input from Chile, Iran and Egypt... 14 members of the 56-state General Assembly were Asian, four were African and 20 came from Latin America."

These numbers are telling indeed, even without considering that many of these non-western states would have been represented by western-trained puppets, and subject to pressure from western powers, neither of which factor Robertson sees fit to mention.

It is also in his discussion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Robertson broaches the issue which emerges as the main theme of his book: the west’s right to intervene anywhere it likes on grounds of ‘humanitarian necessity’. This argument has recently been used for the west’s interventions in the Gulf (because of Saddam’s threat to the peace (and west) loving peoples of the Gulf Arab states), Bosnia, Kosova and East Timor. Some of these interventions have been welcomed by Muslims, others have caused disquiet. Overall, there can be no doubt, as the Crescent has repeatedly reminded us, that they are more for reasons of western interest than any humanitarian grounds, even though they may have brought about some collateral humanitarian benefits.

The legitimization of the ‘humanitarian necessity’ argument as justification for such interventions is one of the west’s priorities now. Robertson points out that Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized".

The "true significance" of Universal Declaration can be appreciated with hindsight, Robertson states. "It lies in the nexus... between grave human rights violations and international insecurity: atrocities within a sovereign state are a matter for international law because they upset neighbouring states in a manner likely to disturb world peace." Robertson then goes on to consider the record of the next 30 years, the years of the Cold War. No-one can doubt the numerous human rights violations of this period, by all sides; but Robertson does not recognise this as reflecting any limit to the west’s commitment to human rights, but rather as a failure of enforcement.

The post-Cold War emergence of a unipolar, US-dominated world he sees as an opportunity for the human rights movement. At no point does he seriously question the sincerity of western governments’ commitment to human rights, or the idea that their foreign policies are determined by human rights considerations. Certainly there is no suggestion that any of them might be responsible for major contemporary human rights or international law violations themselves, although there is the occasional nod to possible violations in the past. The near-genocidal international campaign against Iraq does not merit a mention, even though economic warfare against civilian populations is outlawed by international conventions and is thus a war crime. Israeli actions in Palestine and elsewhere barely merit mention, and the official explanation that the US bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum was an operation against a terrorist target associated with Osama bin Ladin is quoted without comment. (He mis-spells bin Ladin’s name as ‘Osmaru’ throughout the book, apparently in deliberate contempt.)

There is barely even a pretence of even-handedly applying the pious principles that he eloquently voices. Discussing the war crimes tribunal in the Hague, established to try war crimes cases emerging from the Bosnian war, he is scathing about the court’s inability to try the masterminds behind the killings instead of merely jailing junior figures such as Dusan Tadic (the tribunal’s first conviction, sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of 11 counts of crimes against humanity).

Discussing the case of general Pinochet of Chile, however, there is no mention of the American role in his coup and his subsequent rule. The same is true of his discussions of atrocities in the Central American wars in which the CIA financed right-wing groups and military regimes against left-wing popular movements and democratic governments. In these cases, it appears that the masterminds have no liability. Throughout the book, Robertson’s villains are the enemies of the west (or former friends who are no longer needed), and his heroes are the west’s leading members, friends and allies, whatever their personal records.

Such inconsistencies can be interpreted in one of two ways: they are either extremely naive - especially for a lawyer of international repute - or downright hypocritical. One’s suspicions are further raised by Robertson’s barely-disguised hostility to Islam, identified as the main threat to human rights in the next century, and his approving quotations of pious political platitudes from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The impression is inescapable that Robertson, and by extension the human rights lobby of which he is a leading member, have effectively done a deal by which they will offer the west’s imperial policies their considerable credibility and support in return for the status of being accepted as a part of the international establishment. One wonders how long it will be before some of its more open-minded members realize that this is a pact with the devil through which no ideals can be served.

Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 16

Rajab 06, 14201999-10-16

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