Beyond Fear: The Triumph of International Humanitarian Law

By Goldberg, Mark | The Humanist, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Beyond Fear: The Triumph of International Humanitarian Law


Goldberg, Mark, The Humanist


There is a common affliction today that subconsciously threatens a generation of young American writers and social critics concerned about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. As war rages abroad and terrorists threaten us at home, fear increasingly dictates our national course; amidst a general and physical fright we posit only the tired formula of reacting to disaster. With mounting national hysteria, the imagination that is required to transcend conflict somehow escapes us. In a panic, the only question we know to ask is: when will the next attack come?

In a symbiotic relationship with those who actually wish to do us harm, fearmongers who plot U.S. foreign policy bait us with this basest human emotion, scaring us into acquiescence. We readily accept the counterintuitive notion that halting progress toward a common body of international law will somehow make us safer and more secure. Proponents of this philosophy would have us believe that only an America free to wield its power, unfettered by voices of caution or the dictates of international law, can guarantee its citizens' security. The United States is unrivaled in its military and economic muscle, and the unwavering stability of our democracy is the envy of the world--yet we remain vulnerable. Under the ethos commonly referred to as neo-conservatism, only one course of action emerges: become even mightier and consolidate global power so as to deter new threats as they emerge.

But those who refuse to languish in this general malaise are beginning to ask a very different question: can the world's sole superpower really provide global leadership pursuing a foreign policy predicated on fear and anxiety? An ideology that sustains itself by preying on fear necessarily suspends us in a paralysis of social progress; to simply endure until the next crisis erupts condemns us to a cycle of human stagnation. This is progress's staunchest foe.

Yet hope remains, for humanity's natural state is neither static nor reactionary. Rather, history shows that the steady march of human progress prevails over quasi-theological dialectics that pit "us" against the threatening "other"--or, in the inimitable words of George W. Bush, between "people who hate things versus we who love things."

Advancement beyond this primitive concept of world order surrounds us. Humanity's most shining example is the steps it has taken toward fashioning an ever-expanding body of international humanitarian law. Once thought an impossible task, we now have a stable cannon of law to punish--and ultimately to prevent--crimes of war. That old realist adage "in time of war, law is silent" no longer rings true. Efforts since World War II to define genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as labors to restrict the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons, represent a countervailing culture of optimism--a culture with tangible successes that deserve to be celebrated.

The origin of crimes against humanity as a judicial concept was the result of a deliberate choice of the Nuremberg prosecutors, who lacked adequate legal precedent to punish the full scope of Nazi atrocities. Amid great controversy, and contrary to the demands of arch realists who felt that sovereign nation-states remained the only legitimate actors in international relations, the legal definition of crimes against humanity elevated the rights of the human person to a level of legitimate concern for the international community. The inclusion of crimes that didn't (then) fall into the definition of a war crime--either because the perpetrator and victims belonged to the same state (for example, the German Jews), or because the victims belonged to a nationality of a state that was allied to that of the perpetrator (for example, Austrian Gypsies)--revolutionized the laws that govern warfare. The world awoke to a new reality in which the need to punish systematic human rights abuses can supervene sovereignty in international law.

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