John Laughland: International justice is power without responsibility

Share
Related Topics

Many people welcome the recent growth in the power of international criminal tribunals. However, their track record should give cause for extreme concern about the way that this new supranational power will be wielded.

In democratic nation-states, the criminal justice system is embedded within the other structures of statehood, especially the legislature. Rules of procedure in British courts are rightly a matter for solemn debate in Parliament. Not so the existing international tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which are subject to control by no parliament or electorate.

Anonymous witnesses, which the House of Lords has just ruled illegal for murder cases in Britain, are the norm at the Yugoslav tribunal, where no fewer than 40 per cent of prosecution witnesses give their evidence with their identity hidden. Such anonymous denunciation reminds one of the worst excesses of totalitarianism; it fatally undermines the right of defendants to cross-examine their accusers.

A culture of secrecy pervades these tribunals so that it is quite common for hearings to be conducted wholly or partly in secret, the transcripts hidden from the public for an indefinite period of time. Hearsay evidence is admitted, so that a defendant can be convicted on the basis of second or third-hand allegations which cannot be tested in court.

The trials are inexcusably long. The alleged ringleader of the Rwanda genocide, Theoneste Bagosora, was arrested in 1996 and the prosecution did not conclude its case until 2007, more than 11 years later. The trial continues even to this day. Such periods of detention, which are common, are simply incompatible with the presumption of innocence.

International tribunals use a theory of liability which is vague and dangerous. Defendants can be and have been convicted for war crimes they did not commit, did not order, did not know about at the time, and did not even intend. So-called "joint criminal enterprise" is a sort of conspiracy theory gone mad.

Power wielded without responsibility is incompatible with democracy and the basic principles of justice, especially equity. The Yugoslav tribunal never indicted its paymaster, Nato; the Rwanda tribunal prosecutes only Hutus and no members of the present government; and the overwhelmingly white lawyers at the new International Criminal Court have so far indicted only black Africans.

International tribunals are but the judicial wing of the new neo-colonialist Western policy of military interventionism in the internal affairs of other states: their power is dangerous and should be curtailed.

Taken from a debate at the ICA last week. John Laughland's A History of Political Trials from Charles I to Saddam Hussein is published by Peter Lang, Oxford

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
One 200ml bottle of codeine linctus contains three times the equivalent level of morphine you'd get in casualty if you broke your wrist  

The ‘war on drugs’ consistently ignores its greatest enemy: over-the-counter painkillers

Janet Street-Porter
The author contemplating what could have been  

I was a timid, kind, gentle-natured child, later to be spurned and humiliated – in short, the perfect terrorist-in-waiting

Howard Jacobson
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable