Universal justice?

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By BOAVENTURA DE SOUSA SANTOS*

There was no arrest warrant against Bush Jr., but there is now against Putin

The arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against President Vladimir Putin will have repercussions different from those invoked by both the US and its allies and Russia and its allies. For the former, Vladimir Putin, who has not even been charged yet, is already a war criminal, an international pariah, and should be arrested at the next opportunity. For the latter, the warrant has no legal value and will not be effective, being just another act of Western propaganda.

It is impossible to know which of the two readings will prevail in the future and, therefore, I do not comment on them. I focus on the repercussions that can be seen with the naked eye, and from now on. As a political phenomenon, the arrest warrant is similar to the economic sanctions imposed on Russia. Its repercussions will be real, but they are not the ones that are officially proposed.

The first repercussion lies in its impact on any peace process over Ukraine. It was suspected that the USA was not interested in short-term peace negotiations and it was added that the lack of interest was shared by Russia. The suspicion is now confirmed. The US throws everything into the downfall of Vladimir Putin. As this is not predictable, at least in the short term, the Ukrainian people will continue to be martyred and Ukrainian and Russian soldiers will continue to die. The possible and well-intentioned international mediators can, for now, dedicate themselves to other more realistic tasks.

The second repercussion concerns the impact of the arrest warrant on the principle of universal justice of which the creation of the International Criminal Court is one of the most conclusive manifestations. This arrest warrant is a total discredit of this principle. The credibility of the International Criminal Court was affected from the beginning, when none of the great powers (USA, China, Russia) signed the treaty that founded it. They declared loud and clear that they did not feel bound by any decision of the International Criminal Court. The US was particularly vehement in this position and, in fact, if we look at the countries or individuals who were the subject of investigation by the International Criminal Court, we will see that no investigation was accepted or advanced when the US understood that this was against its interests. Two cases illustrate this well.

The arrest warrant was issued on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the illegal US invasion of Iraq. A doubly illegal invasion because it was against the decision of the Security Council and based on the false premise of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Like Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush imagined that the war would last a short time and six weeks later he declared triumphantly: “Mission accomplished”. The war officially ended eight years later, leaving the country devastated and an estimated XNUMX Iraqi civilians dead.

There was no arrest warrant against Bush Jr., but there is now against Putin, and it should be noted that he is not accused of killings, but of the deportation of children, a complex issue in itself, since in World War II it was It is common to evacuate children from war zones as a protective measure. I am not saying that this was the case, but it is clear that the relative gravity of the crimes is not one of the criteria for the intervention of the International Criminal Court. After all, weren't there crimes against humanity in Bucha? And who doesn't remember the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam in which some 500 unarmed civilians, many of them women and children, were murdered? Or the thousands of children who died in Iraq as a result of sanctions imposed by Bush senior?

The second example concerns the decision of the International Criminal Court in March 2021, when Fatou Bensouda was prosecutor, to open an inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by Israel in the occupied territories of Palestine since June 2014. Palestinian State in 2018. It was answered three years later, and it was not even a question of an arrest warrant, it was just the beginning of an investigation. Well, the reaction of the USA, Germany and other allied countries against the decision of the International Criminal Court was the most vehement possible.

Arguments of all kinds were invoked to condemn the decision of the International Criminal Court. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson even argued, as one of the reasons against the decision of the International Criminal Court, the fact that Israel is “a friendly country and ally” of the United Kingdom. The Trump administration even imposed sanctions on the International Criminal Court prosecutor and her senior collaborators and included them on a list of international suspects. Joe Biden lifted sanctions, but expressed great concern about the International Criminal Court's intention to exercise jurisdiction over Israeli personnel. The possible international protection of Palestine, once again, died in its infancy.

It is now evident that international institutions (and not just the ICC) only function effectively to the extent that they serve or do not run counter to US interests. The double standard is so aberrant that the International Criminal Court will hardly survive the caricature it makes of itself.

The third repercussion is that all this points to a fatal erosion of “rules-based international relations”. The illegal invasion of Ukraine was obviously an ax to that principle, and many others followed from all sides of the conflict. The duplicity of criteria in judging them is so serious that we may be inexorably entering the period prior to a new world war.

All the doors through which an easing of tensions could pass are successively closed. The institutions that could regulate the conflict are subjected to extreme pressure. In early April, the country presided over by an alleged war criminal assumes (through monthly rotation) the presidency of the sessions of the UN Security Council. What impact will it have? Of course, the US has been in this position on multiple occasions, notably for crimes against humanity during the Vietnam and Iraq wars. The same happened with France and the United Kingdom for the crimes committed in the colonial wars. And also with China for the crimes committed in Xinjiang.

On the other hand, Russia is not the only country to recognize as legitimate the illegal annexation (according to the UN) of territories by military means. The USA made the same recognition in the case of the territory of Palestine by Israel and the territory of the Sahrawi people by Morocco. What is new is the fact that there is an arrest warrant against the president of the country who will chair the sessions of the highest peace guarantee institution, the Security Council. What world is this? What future awaits us?

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).

Originally published in the newspaper Public.


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