Magazine article The Spectator

The Devils' Advocate

Magazine article The Spectator

The Devils' Advocate

Article excerpt

For most people, to defend a blood-stained tyrant is perverse and shocking; to defend two seems like recklessness. Yet the causes of both Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic are what occupy Ramsey Clark, 78, as he crowns a political career that started with his appointment to the US government on the first day of the Kennedy administration in 1961. Promoted to the post of US attorney general by Lyndon Johnson in 1967, Clark's left-liberal political trajectory has taken him so far from the political mainstream that he is now campaigning for the rights of the two most hated men in the world.

Is he mad? These men's very names resound with the thud of the scud and the sear of the flame-thrower's torch. The shock is all the greater because, in office, Clark pursued a host of politically correct causes such as African-American emancipation and the abolition of the death penalty. How, I asked him when I caught up with him recently in a modest familyrun hotel in a quiet residential quarter of The Hague, can a man who says he sticks up for the weak now side with thugs and dictators? How can you defend people who represent everything you hate authoritarianism, brutality, nationalism, cruelty, war?

'The question contains the assumption of guilt,' Clark replies carefully. 'Whatever my political views, the main thing I am about is this: are you going to follow the law? People used to react in the same way to my death-row cases. "Why are you standing up for those killers?" they would ask. This is no different.' Clark is convinced that Saddam's trial will be unfair. 'Is there a pre-existing competent court with jurisdiction to try him?' he asks. 'The very name "Iraqi Special Court" suggests that there is not. If equality is the mother of justice, then there should not be special courts at all. That is how history will judge us. Without the law, only sheer power will prevail, not truth or justice.'

To be sure, all lawyers get irritated at the outside world's silly amazement that they defend criminals. But Ramsey Clark's political campaigns go way beyond the duties imposed by the taxicab principle. Born into the political establishment - Clark is the only attorney general in the history of the USA whose father also held the same post - he joined the Marines at 17. 'In China in 1948, I saw people dying where they could not bury their own. They had to drag bodies out to the edge of the road where carts would come and pick them up. In Western Europe in 1949, people were still emerging from the destruction. All this informed me in a way I could never escape: the enormity of human misery on the planet; the enormity of poverty and suffering; the contrast between raw power and the vaster poverty of the impotent.'

Returning to the US, Clark completed three university degrees in four years, culminating in a law doctorate. The civil rights movement was then 'a seedling' and Clark decided to nourish it. 'I was extremely aggressive on civil rights, which made me very unpopular.' He joined the justice department and was sent to supervise desegregation in Georgia and Alabama. Race riots killed scores of people. 'We were intensely involved and focused: our job was to protect children.' He supervised the drafting and passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. 'It was the most radical piece of political legislation in the history of the United States. The percentage of African Americans registered to vote, in Mississippi say, rose from 7 per cent in 1964 to 70 per cent by 1968. It meant that white liberals could be elected by the black vote.'

Clark also remains intensely proud that as attorney general he abolished the death penalty at federal level. As a result, 1968 was the first year in the country's history that there were no judicial executions, a moratorium which lasted until 1977. 'While governor of Texas,' Clark interrupts his life-story to point out, 'George W. Bush executed more people than anyone else in the US in the 20th century: 153 executions, including retarded people, minors, foreigners. …

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