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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Concept of International Justice On Trial

The Concept of International Justice On Trial

Gaddafi’s non-judicial ‘execution’ polarised world opinion, from those appalled at the circumstances to those just delighted by the dictator’s demise. This article first published on Suite 101, 27th October 2011.

Gaddafi's Death Polarised World Opinion - US Navy (

In the wake of the death of Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, the airwaves were thick with calls for ‘justice’ for his killers. They received short shrift from the National Transition Council and Libyans sickened by four decades of brutality at the hands of the Gaddafi regime.

British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Gaddafi was ‘subjected to summary justice’. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton demanded an investigation saying: ‘The new Libya needs to start with accountability, the rule of law, a sense of unity and reconciliation in order to build an inclusive democracy’.

Some commentators were quick to point out that the US showed no such compunction in ordering and carrying out the execution of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011. Indeed, few Americans had time for those who felt bin Laden should have been captured and tried.

The long-term issue from Libya is not how such things happen in a civil war, nor how nobody will now find out why Gaddafi abused his power, but what is this concept of ‘international justice’ that has been denied by his hasty death?

International Criminal Court (ICC)

The ICC is the first permanent, treaty-based independent international court with powers to investigate and try alleged perpetrators of ‘the most serious crimes’ of concern to the ‘international community’. Such crimes include genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.

Not all of these are fully understood and accepted. Nonetheless, this court follows consensus on all but ‘crime of aggression’. Crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes) committed during the Second World War were addressed in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials which also judged ‘crimes against peace’, but there was demand for agreed international legal structures.

The ICC, not part of the United Nations, then arose from tribunals set up to judge crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia which only were for specific places and time-frames. It was established by the 1998 Rome Statute, which came into force in July 2002, ratified by 60 nations. It has yet to be fully endorsed by all countries.

What is International ‘Justice’?

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there has always been debate about the morality of warfare and international relations, but since the 1980s there has been ‘sustained effort to develop ethical analyses of international politics drawing upon the traditional concerns of domestic justice’.

Domestic justice is, of course, a variable, continent by continent. New strands like human rights, constitutionalism, toleration, distribution of scarce resources are now on the table. The Encyclopedia argues that liberal political philosophy begins ‘with the premise of moral egalitarianism’.

Political justice, therefore, cannot rest on arbitrary facts about people; luck cannot be the basis for distinction in equality of treatment. Till recently, political justice has been interpreted within territorial boundaries except on occasions like the last world war. That there’s now more of a collective, global response to perceived injustices is where the international justice concept begins.

Where one is born, with what gender, wealth and advantage is something none of us has control over. How far moral treatment and values should reach beyond national, communal boundaries is still the source of discussion. Is there such a thing as ‘universal morality’?

Justice to Tyrants

In 2006, Gregory Elich asked on Global Research about the trial and execution of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, ‘who will pass judgment on those who judge?’ US President George Bush hailed the guilty verdict on the former Iraqi leader for ‘crimes against humanity’ as a ‘major achievement’.

Elrich said that in the western world, the trial found favour, ‘a mark of success of US policy’, but little was ‘fair and legal about the proceedings’. Three of Hussein’s lawyers were murdered, some defence witnesses were intimidated into silence. Elich felt ‘tyrants are in the eye of the beholder’. Actions that win praise from one man, may be condemned by another.

The implication of this observation is that his crimes were tolerated/encouraged when ‘allied with Western interests’, but there was a ‘transformation in perception’ about Saddam Hussein, so ‘international justice’ became selective.

The Nazis

News in History summarised the trial of the leaders of the Nazi regime, ‘one of the cruelest in the history of humankind … the Nazis committed crimes on a scale that shocked the modern world’. At the end of war, someone had to be held accountable and the Nuremberg Trials were the place.

The question of whether soldiers carrying out orders could be tried was a thorny one. The Nuremberg Tribunal (comprising the victors, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA) ruled it no defence to be ordered to kill or torture.

The international justice problem was that Nazis were being tried for crimes not defined as such when they were committed. Nonetheless, twelve men were sentenced to death, seven to jail, three acquitted. Others followed, with 200 defendants at Nuremberg, and 1600 tried in military courts.

So Many Criminals

Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mugabe are but a handful of names in the annals of tyranny, dictators and mass murderers, tried or untried by any national/international legal standards. Admired by some, loathed by many, such people challenge what others think is acceptable, rewardable and punishable.

Now Gaddafi and his son Muatassim, are buried in an Islamic ceremony in a secret location in the desert, where their last resting place will be neither defaced nor a shrine for loyalists. Bin Laden was buried at sea for the same reasons.

That is unlikely to close the argument about international justice. Whenever a new dictator rises in a different part of the world, he/she will be a hero to some, a villain to others. A single international/global view is as impossible as everybody on earth agreeing about everything.


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