What priority should the defence of human rights, law, and International Courts in enforcing them, have for the left? The capture of Radovan Karadžić long after his initial indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have brought some issues about this to out into the open. There are those who criticise ‘victor’s justice’ (not entirely without reason) and the legitimacy of any bourgeois court’s judgment. Not only are such Tribunals driven by the power of Western states, but their bias is, at root, a reflection of their function to protect the interests and property of the rich. Their ethical claims are human rights ‘imperialism’. Far from enforcing real rights they act as a smokescreen for the West’s own abuses, primarily in Iraq, across the planet.
Let’s begin with the charges Radovan Karadžić faces. He is accused of direct responsibility for the deaths of more than 7500 Muslims. Under his direction and command, Bosnian Serb forces set siege to Sarajevo, and carried out countless massacres across Bosnia. Tens of thousands of non-Serbs were killed, hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes, and thousands more were held in appalling conditions in camps, where many died. He is alleged to have ordered the massacre at Srebrenica, commanding Bosnian Serb forces to “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival of life” in the UN safe area… In sum Karadžić is indicted of complicity in genocide, extermination, murder, wilful killing, persecutions, deportation, inhumane acts, unlawfully inflicting terror upon civilians, and the taking of hostages. So it goes. http://www.un.org/icty/cases-e/cis/mladic/cis-karadzicmladic.pdf
No-one can imagine that these are ‘bourgeois’ charges. The actions of the Yugoslavian warlords go against the root of our existence as human beings. There is nothing ‘falsely’ universal about prosecuting what are universal offences.
Now back to Law. And Marxism (heavy, but, hey it’s a lefty thing, you non-Marxists wouldn’t understand…). Engels stated that law is a “reflection of economic relations in the form of legal principles”. (Engels to Schmidt October 27. 1890). There is a view, not often expressed today, that the Rule of law is “The chief obstacle in the development of class consciousness.” “Collective struggle should transcend concern for individual legal rights and justice according to law.”(Marxism and Law. Hugh Collins. 1984. P 139) Marx stated that the market (circulation) is the exclusive realm of freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let as say of labour power, are determined only by their free will. The…” (Capital Vol. 1 1976. P 280) Against this: we have the standpoint that human rights, when enshrined in law, are historical creations that go beyond securing goods and chattels. They come from below, and are a central part of the right against injustice (class oppressions and others). Marxism in this interpretation would make Courts answerable to the voices ‘from below’, but that their role, and their calm procedures, is essential to ending abuses and upholding rights. (The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism. Justice. Historical Materialism. Vol. 13 No 3. 2005.)
Formal bourgeois law, whatever its roots in enforcing contracts and safeguarding property, is often more genuinely universal and just than many of the alternatives. Take legal systems based on status: ancient Roman or Anglo-Saxon law (which assigned worth to the free and nothing to the unfree), or religious-based law – the most glaring case being the non-law of the Sharia which refuses to treat people equally. Or indeed law in Stalinist states, which registered people’s class origins (fixed for ever). The problem is not the idea of human rights, but that making them real requires more than Courts: they can be fully realised only in the kind of egalitarian society we call socialism, or communism. Something like this idea was, at any rate, the opinion of those who have looked at the foundations of the left and the workers’ movements in early forms of human rights demands. Inspired as they are by the French Revolution, and key writings like Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, such principles have been continued by the non-Stalinist left into modern times.
Movements for human rights across the planet should inspire us. We, the left, should be at their forefront. That instruments like the International Court of Justice, or the present Tribunal on Yugoslavia, are flawed, may be the case. But our role should be to improve them, to build a society where justice and rights are real. Not to dismiss them because their claims to universality are blemished. Or still worse, to run with the twisted apologists for nationalist murder and the ‘anti-imperialists’ who deny the very possibility of universal rights and freedoms.