Thursday, April 24, 2008

My own views on international law and the attempted shipment of Chinese arms to Zimbabwe

The background to the post below, urging the Nobel Peace Prize to the South African longshoremen’s union, is as follows. I’ve have moved it separately in order to not mix up that call with my own special views on broader topics of international law. So:

I was asked a few days ago by the Africa department of a major international philanthropy which, safe to say, is strongly pro-international organizations and global governance, as to whether I could think of any basis in international law to prevent the shipment of Chinese light weapons to Zimbabwe where chances seem pretty excellent they would be used to kill the political opposition to Mugabe.

I got my research assistants on it and, unsurprisingly, we couldn’t find any. After all, as I pointed out to the foundation, if you take the position that, in order to constrain the United States from wicked unilateralism by saying that things like embargoes and sanctions must be approved by the Security Council, the price will be that when you want to constrain China, you don’t have any easy international law mechanism to do so. That’s because you already decided that the Security Council would be not simply the political meeting ground of the great powers, but something much more ambitious, the supreme arbiter of a federalized global governance system in what Kofi Annan called, in one of his worse moments, our “fledgling collective security system.”

Hence things like ‘responsibility to protect’ (probably not applicable because, horrendous at the situation is, it probably is not at the level contemplated by R2P, but maybe I’m wrong about that, if you count starvation) under the UN 2005 General Assembly reform document require that the Security Council approve action. I am willing to contemplate a different interpretation of that language, as is the US State Department, and read it to permit unilateral or ad hoc coalition action such as NATO action. But that’s not how most countries understood it when they drafted it - they intended it as a constraint upon the US and NATO following the Kosovo war - and to claim otherwise is thereby just more US wicked unilateralism.

That’s not even mentioning the fact that Zimbabwe - at the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council, any of the UN organs that supposedly truck in the ‘values’ of the international community - is in jolly good standing.

You can come up with all sorts of very, very, very soft law that can usefully be cited in press releases. You can talk about actions that need to match the aspirations of human rights documents such as the ICCPR. But of course it’s aspirational values talk. So what?

And anyway, a lot of the idealist value of those documents on light weapons and small arms - the value that might have existed to deal with a government importing arms to mow down its own citizens in order to override an election it lost - has been frittered away because the global civil society activist community thought it more important to use what started as a generally laudable campaign against promiscuous shipment of small arms into various conflicts in Africa, and into the hands of ten year old militiamen, into a frivolous campaign for gun control in the United States. Not surprisingly, the language of those documents doesn’t have quite the same moral force against Mugabe when language quite appropriate against a dictator shooting his own people is profligately employed against lawful gun ownership in the US.

Look, I’m not a gun owner - I strongly favor Second Amendment rights along the lines that, say, Glenn Reynolds does, and I have come to agree on the evidence that to a considerable extent I and my family are free-riders on the security provided by gun owners - but I don’t personally much care about guns as such.

I have lots of experience, though, in how activists cheapen and exhaust their own rhetoric, by taking it from one context and promiscuously applying it to another. Beware easy political analogies. The entire light weapons and small arms campaign went from serious concern about flooding Africa with weapons to a fantasist’s view of gun control in the US. The activists might continue to believe that there is a simple continuum from Mugabe to concealed-carry laws in the US, but that way lies madness, and many in the international community have gone there. Leaving them with far fewer tools of rhetorical seriousness by which to confront the Mugabe’s of the world - if that, rather than railing against the United States, was ever their first priority.

Real action requires democratic sovereign states to stand up, not just to Zimbabwe, but even more importantly to the country that - forget the US - genuinely embodies pure amoral self-interest and unilateralism, China. Hard as it may be for the American or European progressive left to understand, there are indeed worse things - and quite possibly worse things to come - than American hegemony. And give some credit where credit is due - the strongest force in the international community against the Chinese arms shipment has been the US State Department. Not international law in the supposed fora of international law - plain old diplomatic pressure by a democratic sovereign. But even at that, the US did not have serious international support and it appeared quite likely that the shipment would go ahead.

Luckily, the South African longshoremen’s union stepped into the gap - physically and not just diplomatically. By refusing to unload the small arms off the Chinese freighter, and sending it back out to sea, they sent a message worldwide that no one else had sent.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I understand why you don't write much here, but I do miss your take on Int'l Law - it is such a refreshing position compared to the usual stuff on the subject.