Magazine article The Spectator

International Law Now Threatens International Peace

Magazine article The Spectator

International Law Now Threatens International Peace

Article excerpt

What has President Milosevic to lose? Ministers have made it clear that after he is beaten he will be hunted down and held to account for his crimes. So if he capitulates he forsakes not only power but liberty. Like Macbeth, 'I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er.'

`Let Kosovo burn,' he thinks.

Logic leads this way but it is unfashionable to reflect on it. Ours is the age of strengthening `international law'. When national leaders behave like barbarians, the cry `No hiding place!' resonates the louder. Our Prime Minister said this week that the Serb leader should pay 'a heavy price' for what he has done. Gorged on the moral consequences of wickedness, has Mr Blair not stopped to ask what are the practical consequences of promising to punish it? Odd, this overlooking; criminologists have always been concerned that at no stage during the commission of a crime should we make it irrational for the offender to desist.

Yet here is a pointed example of the incendiary effect of international law and the `new world order'. The fashionable nostrum that we should bring to book the former leaders of sovereign states has consequences in the Balkans, Baghdad and elsewhere. Milosevic, Saddam Hussein - and whom shall we add? Moi? Mugabe? Castro? The leaders of China, Burma, Indonesia? These men now know (or will learn, if international law continues developing like this) that the alternative to their continuing in power is to spend their remaining years as prisoners.

Lord Browne-Wilkinson was very clear about this last week. Summarising the Law Lords' decision on General Pinochet, he pointed out that their lordships could not consider the question of whether his extradition was good or bad for Chile's future, merited or otherwise by that country's history. The only question was whether the `international crime' (of torture) for which extradition was sought was extraditable in the case of a former head of state; and the panel concluded that it was. That their judgment was hedged in practical ways which assist Pinochet himself is of less ultimate importance than the direction in which it points. International law is learning to frustrate attempts by sovereign states, individually or by agreement with one another, to organise amnesties.

I believe in amnesty. It can be a useful weapon in the armoury of conflict resolution. I should have thought this was obvious. Since history began, tyranny and mayhem have been occasionally resolvable by doing deals with desperate men who have backed themselves into corners. The appeal, though seldom so baldly stated, is clear: `Look, you're losing. We both know you cannot win but we both know too what damage you can do before we get close enough to shoot you. You may take thousands down with you as you sink. Surrender now and we will underwrite your remaining years, in disgrace, but at liberty.'

This should not be an argument of Left versus Right. The Right may bridle at deals with the IRA, the Left at deals with South Africa's architects of apartheid. Not only in individual cases, but in principle, the philosophy behind amnesty presents as much of a problem for the moral or legal conservative as for the 'progressive'. To the Tory the idea of recognising a separate category of `political crime' has always been hard to stomach: we prefer to treat terrorists, for instance, as common criminals. But Tories must accept that to urge the release of General Pinochet on the grounds that a nation has the right to make its own accommodation with history is not in principle different from the theory of early release for IRA or loyalist murderers. …

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