International Law: To Be or Not To Be?

In the equation which constitutes the human being, the latent propensity towards cruelty and anarchy is a constant factor. That is why Mankind developed local lores to start with, which developed into national laws and finally, international law. This was created to exist on all levels, yet the frightening reality is that there are dark forces whose aim is its destruction.

As was the case with workers’ rights, children’s rights and women’s rights, despite the fact that thousands of people worked for centuries to make them a reality, a handful of reactionary forces have organised themselves internationally and are systematically chipping away at the collective and individual human rights we have gained.

The countries which have long prided themselves on being upholders of freedom and democracy and human rights are today the worst perpetrators of this backward step. The bottom line is, either human rights and the law exist or they do not; in which case, we descend into a downward spiral of dog eats dog, of a world in which you enjoy human rights if you act like a human being, and who decides?

Those who claim that Arabs are dangerous, Jews are greedy, Americans are stupid and you cannot trust a guy with a moustache because he’s hiding behind something? Those who perpetrated the most shocking act of butchery in Iraq based upon a casus belli which never existed?

If international law does not exist then what was the problem with Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait (given that there was more cause for this – theft through cross-drilling - than the US-led invasion)? If international law does not exist then why shouldn’t Iran have nuclear warheads (especially since Israel already does yet the IAEA turns a blind eye and refuses to inspect)?

Either international law exists for all, or for nobody. By the same token, either the law exists for all, or for nobody.

And here we have the UK case of former school caretaker Ian Huntley, convicted in December 2003 of murdering two ten-year-old girls from the school where he was working the previous year. The gut reaction would be that Ian Huntley is a dangerous, callous man whose long record of abuse before he landed the job at the school in Soham would afford him little or no sympathy.

The gut reaction to his abuse by other prisoners in the UK penal system would be “he deserved all he gets, and more”. In those of us who are parents, horrific and disturbing images lurk behind our eyes when confronted with the sickening reality of an adult male who has abused or harmed children, or women. That is why the law exists, to keep such urges where they belong.

And that is why Mankind collectively signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the UN General Assembly in 1948, a Declaration which stipulated that all prisoners, whatever their crime, have the right to basic human rights and among these rights is that of being protected from other inmates. Article 8 stipulates that “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the Constitution or by law”.

Therefore Ian Huntley’s demand for damages worth 100.000 GBP for an attack earlier this year by another prisoner in which his throat was slit with a razor blade falls within the parameters of what is deemed legally reasonable, however unreasonable Huntley was.

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the First UN Congress on the Prevention of crime and the Treatment of offenders, Geneva, 1955, approved by the Economic and Social Council in resolution 663 C (XXIV), Part II, A, Section 63, (2) mentions the need to provide varying degrees of security for different groups of prisoners.

Was Huntley protected? No, he was not. The question is not whether he deserved to be protected given his heinous crimes. The point is that the law demands that he be protected.

Moving on to the cases of people wrongly convicted and later released from prison, were they sentenced to being raped, to becoming HIV positive, to catching Hepatitis C, to having their teeth smashed, to being forced to perform oral sex on other inmates, while prison guards turned their backs?

If this is what our justice systems are de facto sentencing prisoners to, then let them say so openly upon the act of sentencing. If not, then the law exists and it is there to be upheld, whether or not we are speaking about an odious character such as Huntley, the leader of a state with a dubious human rights record or anyone else.

The final question is this: Does the law exist to be upheld? Yes, or no? And if so, then all institutions and nations are supposed to uphold it.



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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey