Pirates vs. Emperors

New America Media, Commentary, Joseph Nevins Posted: May 07, 2009

History shows that when a powerful empire sets sail overseas its spokespeople often depict the undertaking as an effort to create order and bring peace. When a pirate ship ventures into the open seas, by contrast, the empire portrays the endeavor as a crime against humanity. The difference is not so much what emperors and pirates do—both pillage and plunder, albeit to vastly different degrees. What matters most is which of the two is in a position to effectively define right and wrong.

This history seemed to repeat itself on April 20—only days after Barack Obama called the United States a “nation of laws” and said that his administration would not prosecute Americans for torture. On that night, police and FBI agents led a shackled Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, a teenager from war-ravaged, poverty-stricken Somalia accused of piracy, into federal detention for his role in an American ship captain’s kidnapping. While presented as a step toward law-based accountability, the scene evokes images of an old story—the reigning double standards of what passes for international justice.

About 16 centuries ago the renowned theologian St. Augustine related a tale about a pirate captured by Alexander the Great who asked his prisoner “how he dares molest the sea.” “How dare you molest the whole world?” responded the pirate. “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor.”

Centuries later, this unjust dynamic became widespread as Western powers carved up the globe. Throughout their colonies they established courts that prosecuted crimes defined by the occupying power. Not surprisingly, the courts typically focused their efforts on the alleged crimes of imperial
subjects, while upholding the institutionalized injustices and the acts of physical violence needed to sustain it.

The creation of the United Nations was, among other things, an attempt to overcome the resulting impunity for the relatively powerful. But while the U.N. has had much success in setting international legal and human rights standards, it has been largely ineffective in enforcing them, especially when doing so would challenge the interests of powerful member-states.

This failure is principally one of design, one embedded in the United Nations’ very structure due to the World War II victors’ efforts to ensure that the new international body would allow them to pursue their interests on the global stage. As the Mexican delegate to the founding convention in San Francisco in 1945 noted, the U.N. Charter assured that “the mice would be disciplined, but the lions would be free.”

More than 60 years later, his words have proven to be prophetic. Accountability for “mice” and impunity for “lions” — and the mice with whom they are on good terms — has become the rule, not the exception in international affairs.

Among many examples, witness the current international tribunal in Cambodia. Between 1969 and 1973, the U.S. military carpet-bombed Cambodia, causing the deaths of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of civilians, while indirectly contributing to the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of power. Yet the U.N.-backed court will not try any U.S. officials for committing serious crimes.

As Marlon Brando, in his role as a human rights lawyer in apartheid-era South Africa in the 1989 film, A Dry White Season, explained, “Justice and law could be described as distant cousins, and here … they're not even on speaking terms.”

Bridging the gap between law and justice requires that we in the United States acknowledge the double standards that effectively allow a small number of powerful countries to determine who should face international justice, while exempting themselves from scrutiny. We must reject President Obama’s statement upon the recent release of the torture memos that “nothing will be gained by … laying blame for the past” —words that seem to apply only to some crimes and wrongdoers.

It requires that we imagine the possibility that people like “us,” and the officials from countries with which we ally ourselves, might also be held legally accountable for actions abroad, and to endeavor to make the possibility real.

Until we do so, let us not pretend that law and justice are one and the same, or that emperors and pirates are compelled to live by the same standards.


Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books).

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