The perils of international law

Posted: Feb 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Sixty public intellectuals from the right and the left released a joint statement, "What We Are Fighting For: A Letter From America" ( coincidentally at the same time Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic went on trial before an international war crimes tribunal.

What is American fighting for in its war on terrorism? Its own peace and prosperity? Certainly. But how then can the rest of the world have a stake in the outcome? The joint statement is an attempt to critically evaluate America's war aims and methods by some standard other than "Might makes right," or even "Fear justifies retaliation."

"But as Americans in a time of war and global crisis, we are also suggesting that the best of what we too casually call 'American values' do not belong only to America, but are in fact the shared inheritance of humankind, and therefore a possible basis of hope for a world community based on peace and justice," say these scholars.

Articulating our faith in a common moral standard that applies to all mankind, and to which all mankind is accountable, is "to defend the possibility of civil society and a world community based on justice." Especially when a nation goes to war, the scholars tell us, we have an obligation to articulate and defend "the sanctity of human life and embrace the principle of equal human dignity. "

Brave, stirring, thoughtful words. Some would no doubt view the ongoing trial of Milosevic in The Hague (capital of the Netherlands) as a triumph of just this sort of world community based on justice. Perhaps. But it is also living testimony of how difficult it is to translate lofty ideals into practical institutions.

The hope, of course, is that by bringing deposed heads of state to justice, future atrocities will be deterred and the rule of a moral law that transcends particular cultures will be that much closer to reality.

I have my doubts. Milosevic has rejected the right of three judges at The Hague to sentence him for crimes committed by armies and guerrilla armies in the midst of confusing civil war. Rights that Americans, at least, consider fundamental to due process (such as the right to confront one's accusers) have been abrogated by permitting anonymous testimony.

But at a more basic level, while I do not doubt the existence of moral truth, I wonder about the ability of any society to sustain the sanctity of life absent a transcendent commitment to the same. Reason reveals the moral law, but human beings listen to many voices other than that of reason. If we cease to believe in a creator who endowed us with rights and to whom we are accountable, how long will any rights last?

I wonder this particularly because the nation in which the international tribunal rests is a nation that has tolerated the involuntary euthanization of thousands of elderly and sick human beings. In the new book, "The Case Against Assisted Suicide," two leading medical experts, Kathleen Foley and Herbert Hendin, point out that more than 1,000 lives are snuffed out by Dutch doctors each year without the patient's consent. Since 1990 the number of medical atrocities of this kind has increased dramatically, rising from about 1 percent to 1.4 percent of all deaths.

Seven thousand Bosnian Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica in a nasty civil war. That deserves judgment. But since then, in a time of peace and plenty, about as many old folks were slaughtered by medical professionals.

Nobody is morally perfect. But what right does such a nation, which has gone the furthest to resurrect the Nazi idea that some human life is unworthy of living, have to judge the rest of the world?