Saturday, December 6, 2008

The rule of law or the rule of the gun?


Saturday, November 29, 2008

The rule of law or the rule of the gun?


By Rami G. Khouri

Daily Star staff


One of the great weaknesses in the modern Middle East explaining much of the chronic violence and political thuggery of the past half-century is that the rule of the gun is stronger than the rule of law. Three separate developments now taking place in different parts of the Arab world might have real consequences for the region's future: the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment against the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir; the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) approved this week by the Iraqi Parliament, under which the United States must withdraw its forces by the end of 2011; and the mixed Lebanese-international tribunal that will try those accused of killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other public figures.


These three very different developments have one thing in common that is unusual in and crucial for the Arab World: They bring into play law and accountability as antidotes to runaway homegrown political killings and brutality and foreign military interference. They may well reveal whether we are destined to long remain plagued by political violence and dictatorship, or whether we can anticipate a better future where citizens and entire societies are protected by the rule of law.


The Iraqi-American SOFA is the most complex of the three because of its hazy moral legitimacy. The Iraqi law passed by an elected Parliament emanates from a process of national rebuilding that took place under the nose and in the wake of the American-led invasion that dismantled the previous state structure. Nevertheless, it is a law passed by a broadly representative Parliament in a sort-of-sovereign country, and such a law is always preferable to American and British soldiers orchestrating parliamentary elections or shooting up wedding parties in the desert.


Whether the rule of law takes hold in Iraq remains to be seen, because the rule of law is battling two other powerful and destructive forces that have been unleashed or exacerbated by the Anglo-American invasion and its aftermath: ethno-sectarian tensions and divisions among Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis and others in the country, and rampant resort to the gun - via freelance criminality, or local and foreign-supported political militias and tribal forces - that will take years to overcome.


On Sudan, the ICC judges will soon decide whether or not to approve the July 2008 request by Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Both legal and political arguments will decide this issue. In the final analysis a strong stance by the ICC to prevent and punish genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Africa would be a timely and welcome move. If the evidence is credible and the ICC indicts and one day tries those accused of such crimes, there is a chance that others in the future might be deterred from carrying out similar atrocities.


The most important of the three cases, however, is the Lebanese-international tribunal that will deal with the killings in Lebanon after 2005. The body is expected to start work in The Hague in March, according to an announcement this week by the UN secretary general. This is a potentially historic development because the original decisions establishing the court and launching the investigating commission on the killings were unanimously approved by the UN Security Council.


With the commission now slowly moving from Lebanon to The Hague, its Canadian commissioner Daniel Bellemare will take on the role of prosecutor. He is expected to release his final report on December 4 for review by the UN Security Council, with indictments expected in February. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon correctly stressed that the tribunal would "send a strong signal that the government of Lebanon and the United Nations remain committed to ending impunity in Lebanon ... [by delivering] the highest standards of international justice."


What a nice change that would be, if political assassinations in Lebanon or genocidal crimes elsewhere in the Middle East were subjected to the rule of law, a credible, independent court, and the highest standards of international justice! Arab governments themselves have been unable to implement such basic elements of justice, human dignity, and good governance. Foreign armies that routinely enter the region to promote democracy have usually only strengthened local dictators who rally mass public resentment again the invaders.


The resort to the ICC and the Security Council represents a third option that deserves maximal support from the Arab world and elsewhere, even though the same standards of accountability applied to Arab culprits are not yet applied with the same moral clarity or political vigor to crimes and rampages against Arabs by Israel or Western armies. That must and will come with time. The critical first step is to implant the rule of law as an antidote to political violence and killings in the Arab world, and to stop the impunity that assassins, despots and criminals now enjoy.


Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.


Copyright (c) 2008 The Daily Star


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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