It was an enlightening coincidence that the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, was arrested and sent to The Hague shortly before Russia dispatched its army into Georgia. Where the first event suggested some kind of imposed benchmark of international justice and behavior was possible, the second made it clear we shouldn’t go too far in our expectations.
The Georgian conflict has long been a complicated one, and Russia is no guiltier than other countries, such as the United States, in respecting international law only when it favors its interests. But in the hours after its invasion of Georgia, it was telling that Russia sought to cobble together a legal case accusing the Georgians of war crimes in South Ossetia — rather rank hypocrisy given that Russia’s army targeted civilian areas in Georgia, but Moscow apparently felt the need to offer a legal cover for its actions before the international community. Effectively the Russians twisted themselves into a pretzel to make it seem that they adhered to international legal and human rights norms.
So while the world may be a long way away from an effective and comprehensive system of international justice, Karadzic’s arrest, however, showed that once institutions are actually set up to affirm the rule of law, to circumvent these and their implications can be difficult.
The Hariri tribunal, which is currently being established in The Hague as well, is a case in point. Much has been written of late suggesting that the tribunal is dead, that its prosecutor has no case, that the system of international justice has been shown to be weak in the face of the political interests of individual states. That may well be true in some regards. The former United Nations investigator, Serge Brammertz, who just so happens to be Karadzic’s prosecutor today, clearly did not progress in his investigation as rapidly as he could have, earning him the biting criticism of his predecessor, the German judge Detlev Mehlis.
However, the pessimism may also have to be qualified. The international community and the UN may behave in the most cumbersome ways, but once they go to the trouble of setting up something like the Hariri tribunal, they usually have to give it some meat and meaning, or risk considerable embarrassment and antagonism. That’s why the Hariri tribunal — despite all the doubts surrounding it and the need to lower expectations in terms of who will be directly accused — is nonetheless likely to function and create far more waves than anyone expects. Once the tribunal opens up one sensitive door, it will likely be very difficult to control what comes afterward, and what other doors are opened.
In many respects that is a lesson about the possibilities of international justice, one pillar of a capitalist culture that seeks the amelioration of human freedom in the context of open minds and open markets. Justice doesn’t usually end up working because states or politicians want to improve the world (even if that motive can exist for a time), but because states sooner or later have a selfish interest in accepting justice.
That was certainly why Karadzic was handed over to the tribunal responsible for the former Yugoslavia. With Serbia looking to enter Europe, and the fact that the continued freedom of Karadzic and his collaborator Ratko Mladic presented a major obstacle to this, the Serbia government apparently weighed the costs and benefits of allowing the two men to be protected by certain power centers in Serbia. The conclusion was that protection wasn’t worth it, at least in Karadzic’s case.
That situation does not exist in Lebanon, or at least not yet. If anything, some might argue, the Syrian- Lebanese rapprochement effected in August may make any future blame directed against Damascus by the tribunal problematic for Lebanese interests, since relations between Lebanon and Syria might suffer. In other words Lebanon may have no advantage in seeing the Hariri tribunal go through. Perhaps, or perhaps the precise opposite may be true: If Syria was involved in Hariri’s elimination, as many believe, than what kind of interest can Lebanon have in pursuing a relationship with a regime that murdered a former prime minister? And if Syria is innocent, then it has nothing to fear from the tribunal.
Whichever answer ends up being the correct one, the superficial assumption that “justice always prevails” should be discarded. The point of international justice is not that it is invariably satisfied, but that its burdensome imperatives, even when imperfectly applied, often end up shaping states’ foreign behavior. And that opens up spaces forcing states to sometimes go along with an international consensus, even if they don’t care to do so. There is no certainty here, no guarantees, not even a chance to predict that norms of justice will gradually spread over time to encompass most states. Only the ability to say that some norms of justice are more likely to be applied today than previously.
It’s not much perhaps, but it’s no little thing either.