Tuesday, 17 February 2009

"International Commission" ... it's bound to be bad

For many years people unconcerned by hi-falutin' concepts like human rights and international courts have argued against the imposition of new criminal laws in the name of the "war on terror". It was only a matter of time before the smug intelligentsia of world crime followed suit. Lo and behold, at last the penny has dropped.

Objections to many of these so-called anti-terrorism laws come in various shapes and sizes and more than one line of criticism is often applied to a single measure. Generally speaking it is probably fair to say that the arguments against fall into one or more of four categories: (i) we already have laws that are quite adequate for the purpose, (ii) it won't have any effect on terrorism, (iii) it will be used to outlaw activities for which it was never intended and (iv) it will be used disproportionately to enforce existing minor regulatory offences.

So, we have the police given the power to stop people, search them and ask for their name and address. Something like 300,000 such stop and search incidents have occurred in the name of the war on terror and not a single arrest for a terrorism-related offence has resulted. We have laws outlawing the downloading of, for example, bomb-making instructions from the internet with the result that legitimate research and harmless seeking of knowledge are prevented. We have investigatory powers given, quite bizarrely, to local authorities who use them to enforce petty bye-laws on litter and recycling plastic bottles.

The report from the International Commission of Jurists has taken three years to research and compile and tells us nothing that has not already been analysed and commented on a thousand times. The one difference between the ICJ report and most commentaries is that we little people look at these matters in terms of what actually happens in real life whereas the big wigs of world crime are more concerned with the effect of bad national laws on airy-fairy one-world ideas such as "international human rights" and a particular aspect of "international law".

The concept of "international human rights" is one that causes my addled, flabby brain to fry. Omit "international" and I can just about understand the principle of it. There are certain things The State should not do to the little people and these are classified as "human rights" which should not be infringed save in exceptional circumstances. The problem I have with that proposition is that it is based on standards developed over hundreds of years in just a few countries and, even in those countries, the importance of the principles depends on context and on the historic and cultural values of the particular country concerned.

None of the so-called "human rights" is unqualified. Whether it be free speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial or whatever, both cultural forces and practical necessity operate to ensure there is no absolute standard. For example UK laws restricting free speech are different from those in France whose laws are different from Germany which applies different principles than the USA. Those differences result from the individual histories of the countries and the different standards applied by their law makers. Each country has to set its own standard. The French have a tradition of not disclosing the sexual peccadillos of prominent figures, whereas we tend to thrive on reading about such things. Would the world be a better place if the French learned of Mitterand's affair(s) or if we didn't know about David Mellor and Robin Cook's unlikely dalliances? Maybe, maybe not. The thing is, no one can tell because it is nothing to do with whether the world would be a better place it is all to do with cultural history and contemporary politics in each country. I defy anyone to promulgate a universally applicable principle about when disclosing prominent politicians' extra-marital affairs will be of benefit and when it will be of detriment to the world in general. Life simply isn't like that.

And so it goes with all of the so-called human rights. Take the right to a fair trial as another example. Many European countries have examining magistrates who both guide the police investigation and have to decide whether and what charges should be sent for trial. Nothing could be further from the English system in which investigation and the decision whether the evidence justifies a trial are separated. Which is right, which is wrong? The answer is that neither is right and neither is wrong because there is no single standard against which they can be judged. At the same time, each is right because each has been developed within the countries concerned and is accepted by the people of those countries as an appropriate way to do things. Does a fair trial require a jury of ordinary people or is a trial by three judges better? It all depends on what is accepted as the better system in a particular country. There are no absolutes.

We mustn't forget the right to life. Abortion, is it murder or is it not? Ask the Pope and his followers and you will get one answer, ask others and the opposite opinion will be expressed. Each country has to take a position. Whatever position it takes will meet disagreement by many of its citizens, some vociferously or even violently. That's what happens when people in civilised nations are allowed to express their views. There is never a single, once-and-for-all answer. The debate never ends on abortion and it never ends on countless other subjects which are matters of personal opinion and belief.

So, what are "International Human Rights"? The most they can ever be is an expression of hope that all countries will adopt general standards that have been developed in various ways and with various results in western democracies. Try to impose them on countries that do not have a political culture that can absorb them and you have a recipe for disaster. Try to impose them on a political culture that can absorb them but has not yet absorbed them and you are guaranteed to meet resistance. The very fact that a political culture can absorb them but has not yet absorbed them means it is taking its own time to develop principles suited to its culture and people. Any attempt to tell them to adopt certain principles into their law will be seen as a disrespectful imposition. That leaves only one option, to impose them on countries that already have them. Ah, bit of a problem there, if they already have them the imposition is pointless. And that is exactly what "International Human Rights" are, utterly pointless. Actually, I might have overstated my case there. They are not pointless if they are a point of reference for developing countries. And therein lies the problem. Therein also lies the link to my earlier point about so-called "International Law".

International law has an important part to play in international affairs. There are four aspects to international law. Much of the earth and much of the sky is not "owned" by any country. If ships are to sail and planes to fly across the bits no one owns, there have to be rules to minimise risk. The first part of international law is about movement of people and goods through non-national territory. The second part is about war. Left to its own device war is indiscriminate. With a view to trying to restrict the damage done by armed conflict, there is an international law of war. The third part is about the relation between nations. There is a body of international law about diplomatic relations. The fourth part is where the problems occur. The fourth part is all about supranational bodies and their power over sovereign nations.

The very idea that an international body should be able to dictate what a sovereign nation does or does not do is anathema to me. We have enough trouble here, a country with one of the longest histories of continues democratic rule in the world, in getting the government (of either party) to debate issues fully and pass workable laws. Having laws imposed by a body even more remote from the people than their own parliament strikes me as a bad idea.

The International Commission of Jurists seems to disagree. It is more concerned that bad national laws undermine the authority of international law than that they undermine the condition of life for the people directly affected by the offensive laws. The aspect of international law they address is the power of supranational bodies. Oh, do I see a bit of personal interest here? Do I detect the fear that countries making their own laws might undermine the authority of the International Commission of Jurists and the supranational ideas they promote?

There is an important role for international bodies to play in matters labelled "human rights", but that role is purely advisory. Any other role is, by definition, a role that bears powers of compulsion. In practice, compulsion can only be exercised against those who are playing on the same field. Only the most developed countries have sufficiently advanced social and political structures to be able to incorporate principles of so-called human rights into their law. Once those nations create supranational bodies to promote so-called human rights there is only one inevitable result. The supranational bodies will seek to justify their existence. Advising developing nations will not be enough and compelling developing nations will be impossible, the only thing left is to compel the very countries that set them up to adopt laws that those (by definition) sophisticated and developed countries have not felt it appropriate to adopt.

Just as the EU has taken on a life of its own and developed its own agenda, so all supranational bodies do the same. They might do some good at the margins, but that just encourages them to demand more powers, powers which will be exercised without democratic control and with no regard to the cultural sensibilities of the countries subject to their commands.


H.R. said...

I just wanted to drop by to say how much I enjoy your comments on WUWT. Your posts are always both amusing and thought provoking with the added bonus of well chosen words and nicely turned phrases.

I'll be back when I have some time to read more of what you've written here. I know I'll enjoy it though at this point I haven't a clue as to whether or not I'll agree with a word you've written. But I already know I'm in for good reading.

TheFatBigot said...

Thank you, it's nice to have you here.

Pogo said...

Insane optimist that I am, I've always hoped one day to see one of these collections of international chatterati be overcome with an attack of integrity, meet just once and publish a report saying "Our discussions have brought us to the conclusion that this body is completely unnecessary and thus it will be disbanding upon the publication of this report".

Ah well...

Blimey - something about international jurists and the w/v is "sangat". :-)

TheFatBigot said...

We can but dream, Mr Pogo.

Alan said...

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows the police to stop and search people. In 2008:

* Number of people stopped nationwide by British Transport Police using s 44: 160,000
* Number of people stopped in London by the Metropolitan Police using s. 44: 200,000
* Number of people amongst the 360,000 stopped under s. 44 and found to have any terrorist material or links: 0

Note these figures only relate to two police forces all be it large ones. There can be no doubt many more have been needlessly bothered by Section 44.

The Great Simpleton said...

I read somewhere the she intends to stand on a platform of more equality, whatever that means.

Perhaps she will exceed Michael Foot's achievement of writing the "longest suicide note in history" by taking Labour to the point of actually committing suicide this time; never to be seen or heard of again.