Monday, August 29, 2011

Uri Avnery might be right about Libya but he's wrong about NATO

Uri Avnery is one of my heroes, although I don't know him. He is my idea of a gentleman and a scholar and a soldier, courageous and wise. If he was in charge of Israel and/or the United Nations, the world would be a different and better place. I idealize him to an extent that it's a relief to find I disagree with him.

I don't argue that Libya is better off for a change in management, particularly since the previous management was arbitrary, capricious, greedy, clever, brutal, intolerant, demeaning, grandiose, and stupid. The manner of the change however, is open to discussion.

I'm not an expert on Libya, North Africa, or the Middle East. I am, however, a citizen of NATO, and in particular a citizen of one of the several NATO countries - Canada - that has chosen to participate in whatever has been going on in Libya for the last six months. Although Canada is involved, it's not clear what it's doing, or why. This is my whole point about Uri's position: the behaviour of NATO is almost as arbitrary as that of Gaddafi, however you want to spell it. NATO is a military alliance and operates in secret, as is normal. As an instrument of international policy however, it's completely opaque, and not accountable to anybody except the United Nations Security Council that it treats with contempt, although it provides convenient legal cover. On the other hand, Brussels isn't that far from The Hague, and certain NATO persons might be a little nervous, with reason.

So here's my perspective - I admit I'm obsessed about it: British parliamentary democracy. It's a work of genius but like the giraffe, it has evolved. The design is not obvious. I'm starting to think that anybody who hasn't grown up in a British parliamentary democracy can't begin to appreciate how it works, as indeed those of us who have grown up in such a democracy don't know how it works either unless we stand back to admire the machinery. It might not work for everybody, but there is one inescapable conclusion: the citizens agree to the rule of law. That principle of course could work in any other system - the American experiment for example, although it's becoming painfully clear that the rule of law is no longer accepted by American citizens. British parliamentary democracy however has about 1000 years of continuous evolution going for it. Be that as it may, there has been another evolution more recently, which is the rule of international law. I don't need to rehearse the wisdom or validity of international law: its existence is a fact, however you want to define it. A treaty between two nation states is international law, although I'm not entirely clear who agreed to the "Civil Assistance Plan" signed between "Canada Command" and the American "Northern Command." I digress.

A whole lot was made of international law at Nuremberg, and people hung as a result, some of the relevant crimes involved having nothing to do with the Holocaust and everything to do with violations of international humanitarian law, shooting of prisoners out of hand for example. There is a lot of precedent, and I note only in passing that the Supreme Court of Canada stated that international humanitarian law was "binding" on the government of Canada, and that a guy from Rwanda was convicted of war crimes in Quebec Superior Court (on the basis of the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, 2000) and jailed as a result.

Where I'm going with this is that the legal basis for military intervention in Libya is a crock. Regardless of persuasive moral arguments, either we have the rule of law or we have the rule of power politics, which - as defined by George Orwell - is that there are no rules. If there are no rules, then whatever happens is fine, international law is frippery, forget the UN Security Council and all that: power grows from the barrel of a gun. I don't think anybody at NATO is pretending that that's the case, or if they are (Obama comes to mind), they're not being honest about it. Why lie?

If we do have the rule of law in international affairs, Libya becomes rapidly awkward. Many Libyan people clearly and courageously expressed a desire for change, and were met with brutality. So, what do we - we who stood around and let The Holocaust happen - do?

The relevant framework is at the United Nations, and the concept in play is the Responsibility To Protect, the fashionable "R2P." My argument to Uri is that it's a cool concept, but nobody has the vaguest idea how to do it, that it's probably hard as hell, and doesn't involve the military except in the most agonizingly restrained way. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970, passed unanimously 15-0, called for certain Libyan authorities to be referred to the International Criminal Court, and for vigorous negotiations to take place with regard to power in Libya. To me, a Canadian citizen, this was a big deal, because the United States recognized the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and everybody was in favour of the approach, including China and Russia.

Then, panic set in - something set in - and there was immediate agitation for military intervention, intervention "authorized" by UNSCR 1973 - passed 10-0 with 5 abstentions, including China, Russia, Brazil,  India and Germany - and was used immediately by NATO, or at least the Cool Group in NATO, to loose off cruise missiles and miscellaneous hardware, to fulfill a "mandate" Germany didn't recognize as legitimate.

You see, Uri? There might be short term gain, but there's gonna be long term pain. Is the UN Security Council responsible for war crimes that might have been committed by NATO or its subsidiaries? In what court would we hold the Security Council responsible? That of course also applies to Afghanistan where UN Security Council Resolution 1386 was used as a "mandate" for everything that has subsequently occurred, war crimes committed by NATO troops seeming probable, almost certain.

Take my own country, Canada. I was shocked that my own House of Commons voted carte blanche for the government to do anything they wanted in Libya, with no accountability, the whole affair being planned by NATO in secret as if we were some kind of vassal state. I was pleased to note that there was one vote against the motion - cast by Elizabeth May, widely regarded as a left wing environmental wingnut - who objected to the "open ended" nature of the motion. Yay, Elizabeth! It's like Gruening and Morse voting against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution when people stampeded to get in line with the Executive, leading to a lot of grief, people like William Fulbright stampeding even though they knew better. Now we have Obama not even bothering with Congress - the UN "mandate" means he can do whatever the hell he wants?

You see why you're wrong, Uri? It's arbitrary rule. Even if it means well, it sucks. UNSCR 1970 was the hard path of wisdom, keeping the goddamn finger off the trigger while showing the world the rule of law. Instead, we have George Orwell's nightmare, come to haunt us.

So here's a thought: maybe we can repeal UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Why not? It can be part of the evolution.