- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

Geoffrey Robertson's "Crimes Against Humanity" differs crucially from other recent essays advocating a larger role for "human rights" in foreign policy.

First, Mr. Robertson argues unambiguously that diminished national political autonomy is both inevitable and desirable: "The movement for global justice has been a struggle against sovereignty," since sovereignty is "the traditional enemy of the human rights movement." Mr. Robertson unhesitatingly disparages the United States as one of the chief obstacles on the road to the millennium, and particularly Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, whom the author implicitly identifies as America's most powerful foreign policy decision maker.

Second, Mr. Robertson is candid enough to criticize failures in the human rights crusade. He laments, for example, that "human rights have been pigeonholed by academics as a subset of international law, that most airy-fairy of disciplines, at worst a mirage and at best a hostage to international politics." Nor is the author a fan of the United Nations, as he tries "to avoid the common textbook pretense that conventions and U.N. committees and General Assembly declarations reflect reality."

Make no mistake, this is not an objective book but a polemical and often an intemperate one, though it does have the virtue of occasional, if inadvertent, revelation. Mr. Robertson provides his version of human rights in this century, and particularly its recent explosion in war-crimes tribunals, the doctrine of "universal jurisdiction" and the "right of humanitarian intervention." He delivers on one promise, which is to avoid drowning in Latin and obscure legalisms, an advantage of having a barrister rather than a professor writing.

Nonetheless, Mr. Robertson suffers from the common failing of the international left wing, being either unable or unwilling to address the arguments of opponents and skeptics of his position. Instead, he characterizes them all as knaves or fools, which is certainly a more convenient rhetorical approach than dealing seriously with arguments about the threats posed to constitutionalism and representative government by the left's essentially indiscriminate supranationalism.

This is unfortunate, since the author, more open about his ultimate objectives than so many of his cohorts, nonetheless repeatedly demonstrates that he simply cannot grasp the serious policy and philosophical objections to his analysis. Thus, for him, the Roman Catholic Church is neither a source of freedom of thought, nor of compassion, but is instead part of the problem: "Vatican diplomacy has blessed most of the tyrants and torturers of recent history."

Of course, many Americans commit comparable mistakes. Some simply do not take the likes of Mr. Robertson and his colleagues seriously, considering their efforts to be completely at the margin of U.S. foreign (and domestic) policy. By operating in seeming isolation, nongovernmental organizations have been able to mobilize support for such recent developments as the Landmines Convention and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Moreover, "human rights" advocates, by persuading some Americans on one or another specific policy position (such as military intervention in Kosovo) have induced them to overlook the larger implications for the United States hidden in the human rights agenda.

Mr. Robertson happily reveals the agenda, asking, "What entitles a combatant to value the lives of its pilots so highly that all bombs are dropped from a height at which the pilots are safe and civilians are certain to die?" Mr. Robertson has a ready prescription, which might serve to wake at least some Americans up: "[T]he law of war may come to resemble the law of tort, with combatants liable to be sued for negligence if they miss their approved military target." This is hardly the way to encourage a future "humanitarian intervention," which the author purportedly favors.

The author confidently asserts that Mr. Helms' "arrogant" nationalism sees "international justice" as a potential stumbling block for American hegemony. Actually, however, Mr. Robertson really objects not so much to American hegemony as to American autonomy, our unwillingness to bend the knee subserviently to his worldview. Nowhere is this clearer than in his opposition to America's use of the death penalty. "The U.S. is a country which plans to disappear almost as many of its citizens as did Pinochet, namely the 3,500 currently condemned to die on its death rows."

In the next sentence, Mr. Robertson criticizes Texas Gov. George W. Bush's allegedly automatic denials of clemency, resulting in 33 of last year's 99 U.S. executions. Pinochet, Bush, whatever.

Mr. Robertson's openness in expressing publicly what many American human rights advocates say only in the privacy of their own meetings and closed conferences is an important milestone. Perhaps the most interesting next step will be to see if these partisans follow him out into the open, or whether they continue to downplay their ultimate objectives.

John R. Bolton is the senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. During the Bush administration, he served as the assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide