International law works best when applied consistently


What is the value of law? What are the consequences of applying some laws selectively, by punishing some law-breakers and ignoring others?

How does or should respect for law play a role in how countries deal with each other?

Several cases these days highlight how international law is actually applied, and what happens when we ignore the deeds of countries or individuals that ignore accepted legal norms.

Events last week should prod us to further appreciate the importance of gathering factual information on allegations of criminal activity, how individual states, especially big powers, react to this, and how established international organisations like the UN or the International Criminal Court (ICC) respond.

The cases last week are the sentence of life in prison for former Chad president Hissene Habre for crimes during his presidency; the US government’s expression of concern about the direction of the new Israeli government that includes hardline settler Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister; and the US government’s suspension or delay in shipping cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, because of the alleged use of those weapons in the Yemen war in civilian areas.

These very different cases converge on whether legal codes, restrictions and punishments will be applied consistently to all countries and individuals, or will be applied selectively on the basis of political alliances and interest.

Historically, the Middle East region has suffered some of the world’s most naked cases of double standards applied to all parties, including Arab and other regional states or leaders (Israel, Turkey, Iran), powerful non-governmental organisations that actively engage in warfare (Hamas, Hizbollah, Houthis in Yemen, and dozens of other smaller militias), foreign governments that wage war in Arab lands, and assorted other parties, including individuals.

Rare exceptions to the rule of the broad inapplicability of international norms in the Middle East have included the international special tribunal to try those accused of killing the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the ICC indictment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir, and some UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, Iraq, Hizbollah and select others.

We in the Arab world have long complained about global double standards in not holding Israel accountable for its defiance of international norms, while taking more tangible and often direct military or political action against Arabs like Saddam Hussein, Bashir, Bashar Assad, Muammar Qadhafi and others who are accused of criminal or inhuman activity.

That double standard was at work again last week, but with a twist that is intriguing. The twist is that Washington actually suspended its shipment of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, pending the gathering of “additional information”.

Cluster bombs that kill or injure indiscriminately, sometimes years after being launched, were banned in an international treaty in 2008 that the US, Russia and other arms exporters did not sign.

This fascinating American nod to the need to comply with international legal norms and protections will be most meaningful if Washington continues to take practical steps — even mere temporary suspensions like this one — to put teeth into existing laws and global conventions that might be applied to all states.

The life imprisonment verdict against Habre is also a good step in that direction, despite its taking two decades to happen.

But this contrasts with a range of other responses to allegations or proven incidents of criminal behaviour that contravenes existing laws, such as the US government’s expression of “concern” and “legitimate questions” about the direction of the policies of the new right-wing Israeli government.

The State Department spokesman said the US would judge the new government based on its actions, which is fair enough.

But in cases where the actions of Israelis explicitly break international legal norms, such as Lieberman’s residence in the Israeli settlement of Nokdim, on occupied Palestinian land, and the settlements process overall, we hear only mild verbal expressions of concern.

Such selective responses in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Israel can only weaken the meaning and impact of international laws, which hurts us all in the end.

We have many other complaints against Israeli government actions that almost certainly defy international norms, such as harsh sieges of civilians, excessive military responses to Palestinian attacks, exploiting resources in occupied lands, using banned weapons such as phosphorous bombs, and many others that have been well documented by Arab, Israeli and international human rights organisations.

Arab parties also have acted in criminal ways over the years, including governments and rebel groups that indiscriminately bomb, starve and kill their own people, as we witness in Syria today.

The wave of violence that continues to engulf many parts of the Middle East is perpetrated by a wide range of actors, all of whom should be subjected to the constraints that international law and convention aim to apply in order to protect people’s lives and property.

Last week’s actions in various lands remind us again that we have the instruments to apply the law for this noble purpose, but that we can succeed in this venture only if the laws are applied uniformly to all miscreants and tyrants, whatever their nationality or religion.

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