Truth, Justice, [Osama] and the American way

News of Osama’s death have spurned an amazingly diverse range of emotions, responses and conspiracies. Robert Fisk suggests that Osama was betrayed, and Pakistan knew where he was hiding for a long time. There has been flag waving, jubilation, criticism, shoulder shrugging and quoting/mis-quoting Martin Luther King. The death of one person has not seen such celebrations since Hannibal poisoned himself sometime between 183-81 BC to avoid falling captive to the Romans. This, just as Superman wrestles with inner turmoil about the meaning of truth, justice and the American way and thinks about renouncing US citizenship.

Sites around the Internet are asking whether Osama should have been put on trial. The Economist is asking whether it is right to celebrate his death. Groups of friends, colleagues and family members are asking each other these same questions and having heated debates. These are deeply philosophical, moral and ethical questions to ask, and it is not as simple as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Amid these discussion and events sits the International Criminal Court. Disinterested. Unused. Silent. What is the purpose of the ICC, of an international system of justice, of the very notion of justice itself, if the right to a fair trial is not given to all? Where extrajudicial killings by intelligence agencies, accountable to who(?), become judge, jury and executioner.

“In the prospect of an international criminal court lies the promise of universal justice. That is the simple and soaring hope of this vision. We are close to its realization. We will do our part to see it through till the end. We ask you . . . to do yours in our struggle to ensure that no ruler, no State, no junta and no army anywhere can abuse human rights with impunity. Only then will the innocents of distant wars and conflicts know that they, too, may sleep under the cover of justice; that they, too, have rights, and that those who violate those rights will be punished.” (Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General)

Geoffrey Robertson, an Australian QC and human rights lawyer, on the killing of Osama bin Laden states that “It’s not justice. It’s a perversion of the term. Justice means taking someone to court, finding them guilty upon evidence and sentencing them”. Or, as Thrasymachus suggests (via The Economist), “Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger…And they declare what they have made — what is to their own advantage — to be just for their subjects…. This, then, is what I say justice is, the same in all cities, the advantage of the established regime.”

Lest we forget those who died on September 11, 2001, but lest we also forget the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since September 11, 2001. We know how many Americans died on that day. We have no idea how many people have died in these countries since that day. Only their families know.

  • Civilian deaths in Iraq: estimates vary, but reported to be as high 650,000
  • Civilian deaths in Afghanistan: casualties of American air strikes, between 1,200-8,000. Estimated that over 20,000 have died as an indirect result of the invasion. The latest were 9 Afghan boys on March 7th, 2011.

“‘Truth, justice and the American way’ – it’s not enough anymore.” (Superman)

Update 17th May 2011

Superman has decided to retain his U.S citizenship, and give the country a second chance.

Credit: Bleedingcool.com

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Brendan Rigby

Director & co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist with eight years of experience working as a teacher, researcher and programme officer. Most recently, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF in Tamale, Ghana. This year, Brendan is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. He is also a communications consultant for Plan Asia and Director of Venture Support at StartSomeGood.

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3 Comments to “Truth, Justice, [Osama] and the American way”

  1. Alex says:

    Soph, that is a superb point and very neatly made. Thanks.

    For those who may be interested in more discussion of the "was it the right thing to do" question, the reputable Australian program Q and A had a interesting panel discussion about it. Transcript here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3205559.htm

  2. Soph Kagan says:

    As a side note, there is an interesting discussion on the guardian website about the effects of Bin Laden's death on aid to Pakistan (as well as broader issues of aid being tied to domestic policies): http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2011

  3. Soph Kagan says:

    Great article Brendan! I want to make a quick comment about the ICC. You say “What is the purpose of the ICC… if the right to a fair trial is not given to all?” I agree with you that the integral notion of international justice includes a right to a fair trial, but this isn’t and shouldn’t be a right that is policed and enforced by the ICC. The purpose of the ICC is to prosecute the most serious crimes that are of concern to the international community as a whole. The jurisdiction of the ICC encompasses just four crimes – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and (soon) the crime of aggression. Prosecution is incredibly complex (the ICC is yet to fully complete a single trial!) and it’s essential that the focus is therefore on the most heinous crimes – not just the ones that are splashed across the news.

    As abhorrent as a murder of an unarmed man is, it is unlikely to amount to any of the four crimes within the jurisdiction of the court in the absence of widespread violence (in the case of crimes against humanity /war crimes you would need to show that the act was large-scale or part of a widespread/systematic attack against civilians). The court has opened investigations in just six countries, most recently Libya where there is evidence of security forces having routinely attacked unarmed civilians. It is also important to remember that even if the killing did fall within the definition of one of these crimes, the ICC still wouldn’t be able to intervene as neither Pakistan (where the crime took place), Saudi Arabia (the nationality of the victim) nor the US (the nationality of the perpetrator) are parties to the ICC. As such, the only way that the ICC could open an investigation would be at the beckoning of the UN security council, which, with US’ veto, is simply not going to happen. None of this is intended to condone what has happened. But I think that the symbolism of the ICC sometimes masks its inherent limitations. The right to a fair trial is part of international law and there are other avenues to enforce it (universal jurisdiction, Alien Torts Act). We can’t blame the ICC every time that a crime is committed and not prosecuted.