Saturday, June 15, 2013

Crimes Against Humanity: Lions and Tigers and Bears

What, exactly, is a "crime against humanity"?

I ask because, once again, the airwaves are full of reports about "crimes against humanity"--in particular, about Syrian President Assad, who has supposedly used lethal gas (sarin?) to eradicate large numbers of his own people--Syrians rebelling against his regime.  U.S. President Obama says that in using poisonous gas, Assad has "crossed a red line" and that some kind of American response must be forthcoming in order to protect the interests of "humanity" against such "crimes."

But, as much as I abhor the notion of chemical warfare, I nonetheless think that Washington's outrage about the supposed illegality of using gas on a civilian population is itself little more than, well, pompous and sanctimonious "gas."  After all, there is no "law" universally recognized and sanctioned by the power of any universal authority that prohibits a particular nation-state from taking any action it pleases on people living within its borders.

Oh, I know, there is the 1925-29 Geneva Protocol and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention which ban the use and stockpiling of chemical weapons.  And there are all those United Nations resolutions and statutes and blah blah blah.  Syria, however, is not a signatory to the CWC (though I gather it did sign a 1949 version of the Geneva Protocol).  As for the various UN resolutions, etc., I defy you to make any real sense of any of them.  In general, their vague and platitudinous language reveals them for what they essentially are:  attempts to justify the occasional intervention of one or another world power in the internal affairs of some less-powerful state.  They are rationales for political action couched in the language of morality and hiding beneath the vague assumption that there exists, out there in the ether somewhere, some absolute, all-transcendent, natural law which must be enforced by any strong "good" state (particularly, it would seem, when this so-called law is broken by some weaker "bad" state).

But there is no clear articulation of said natural law, let alone any formulation of a philosophically valid underpinning for such a law (i.e., an objective criterion which all humans would agree to and against which conduct could/should be measured in order to determine whether or not it constitutes a "crime against humanity"). Above all, no clear-cut (i.e., effective) enforcement procedure is specified or agreed to.

All we encounter in U.N. documents such as the Rome Statute of the International Court is an unstated assumption that everyone "just knows" what constitutes "inhumane" conduct. Many examples are mentioned--murder, rape, genocide, persecution of minority groups--but, alas, no clearcut definitions of these terms are provided (and we all know that the understanding of what constitutes "murder" is almost certainly quite different in Saudi Arabia than in Denmark).  Moreover, and tellingly, this gaseous and toothless "statute" goes on to caution that a crime against humanity is not actually committed until or unless such vaguely defined inhumane behavior reaches a certain "threshold" of frequency or intensity!!

"However, murder, extermination, torture, rape, political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice. Isolated inhumane acts of this nature may constitute grave infringements of human rights, or depending on the circumstances, war crimes, but may fall short of meriting the stigma attaching to the category of crimes under discussion."  (Rome Statute Explanatory Memorandum, emphasis mine)

This little memorandum nicely lets all of the world's establishment powers off the hook.  We Americans (and Brits and French and Australians) are the good guys, after all.  So, yes, maybe we occasionally terminate with extreme prejudice some suspicious agitators, torture a few nobodies in Guantanamo, incarcerate a few unwashed political protestors on trumped-up charges, use racial profiling to persecute undocumented Latinos into "self-deporting," collect personal data on millions of internet users who use words such as "bomb" in their e-mails.  But surely these acts are not sufficiently "systematic" and "widespread" to warrant the qualification of "crimes against humanity."

Apparently, then, what the U.N. is worried about is not the actual nature of inhumane conduct (which it does not attempt to define in terms of any universally applicable law or principle) but merely the scale of this nebulous behavior (not kind but degree).  You mustn't do too much that other people and other governments--especially governments with big military establishments--disapprove of.  If you do too much and too ostentatiously, and if you are relatively weak in comparison to disapproving other countries, then your behavior risks reaching that critical "threshold" at which it may be judged (by others) as a "crime against humanity."  In which case, beware, because this condemnation might then, quite possibly, be used as a justification for military intervention into your internal affairs--"corrective" action to punish you--not so much for doing harm (heck, everybody does that), but for doing it on such a large scale and within such full view that you make uneasy other governments who prefer to keep their mischief more restrained, more discrete, more conventional.

You, the criminal country, must then be taken out to the woodshed by the "good" countries. (This is "enforcement"?)  You must be punished for being too uppity--and above all, for being "inhumane" in ways that are too visible and too detached from the usual rationales that mankind uses to justify inhumanity. It is just not OK to flaunt your nastiness, to flip off the good guys and their religious and philosophical apologists.  In short, your crime lies most especially in your egregiousness--by which you give a bad name to government in general.

So it really all just boils down to one thing:  the powerful countries impose their will on less powerful countries and they do so by claiming to serve the interests of "humanity" when, in actual fact, they are serving only their own national interests.  (If the United States had no national interest in ensuring stability in the Middle East and/or in pleasing Israel, or if Syria possessed more substantial military or economic clout, I can assure you that there would be no question whatsoever about committing American troops and treasure to punish Assad's "crimes against humanity."  Oh, yes, we fussed and fumed and wrung our hands about Soviet gulags--but the USSR had nuclear missiles--so we just sorta pushed the "threshold" further out, didn't we?).

Well then! It's all a humbug!  All countries commit acts that are of dubious morality even when measured against the dubious and often mutually contradictory criteria provided by philosophers and divines. Obviously, some countries are more equal than others in this regard.  Still, one thing is clear:  we punish only the little guys or the losing guys--and only when punishing them will satisfy some need--psychological or economic--within the borders of the "good" (or, in the case of war, the "winning") country.  Oh, the horror! The horror!

I am reminded of La Fontaine's wonderful fable "Les Animaux malades de la peste" in which the entire animal kingdom (i.e., "humanity") is threatened by the plague (i.e., some vaguely understood, but very real "inhumanity").  It is decided by the royal court (the U.N.?) that this evil must be Heaven's punishment for some criminal activity ("crime against humanity") and that, consequently, if the guilty evildoer can be found and punished, the threat of the plague will automatically disappear.  A trial is conducted (Nuremberg, Eichmann) and, surprise!, all of the powerful members of the court are exculpated for their understandable and "trivial" misdoings--the lion for eating sheep and a few shepherds; the tiger and bear and the mastiff for killing, but only in the most saintly manner (the U.S. for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Britain for Dresden, Russia for the gulags and the pogroms). However, it is discovered that the donkey (Assad)--a truly villainous and scurvy fellow--is guilty of the most unimaginable and blasphemous atrocity:  eating grass on a monastery lawn!  This vile beast is, of course, condemned and immediately dispatched for his monstrous crime against humanity--er, animality.  La Fontaine drily concludes:

"According to whether you are powerful or lowly/ The judgments of the royal court will paint you white or black."

Please don't misunderstand me here.  I do NOT condone the violence going on in Syria.  Nor do I disagree with the judgment that it is "inhumane" (though, along with Sam Harris, I think I actually have a practical and working understanding of what this term means).  What I hate, however, is the hypocrisy and bad faith of Western governments, who seem to forget that they, too, commit daily crimes against humanity.  I also dispute the notion that, in the absence of a world government, the United States has an obligation/ moral duty to play the role of enforcer of some universal "law" that has never been either articulated or justified. Human beings have, since the beginning of their existence as organized groups, behaved inhumanely toward other groups--all the while, I suspect, believing that this self-serving villainy was somehow for the "good" of everybody.

So, until we have a world government which will, in fact, define "human good" and then put in place a mechanism for enforcing this definition, I firmly believe that the best course for individual nation-states, unless they are actually threatened or implicated, is to abstain from intervening in the internal affairs of other states.  "Crimes against humanity" will never be stopped--can never be stopped--until humanity--all of humanity--in the form of a universal Human State--is in agreement about exactly what constitutes such crimes and about exactly how a force instituted and authorized by this selfsame Human State should punish such universally recognized "crimes against humanity."