To Obey the Law or Continue Criminal Actions?

Four very different approaches on to how to resolve situations of violence, atrocity, and occupation.

What is the best way to achieve legitimate political goals that correspond at once to clear national interests, a domestic consensus, and international legitimacy? Several different events in recent days across the Middle East and North Africa region provide us with a fascinating menu of options to choose from; they suggest different levels of efficacy and legitimacy that any country or group of militants must assess in choosing their preferred means of action in the struggles they wage. The very different situations that occurred in the past few days include the following:

  1. In Libya and Yemen, American missile strikes from drone aircraft reportedly killed two important Salafist-takfiri militants—Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who had waged war and terror across several states in North Africa, and Nasser Al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni whose years close to Osama Bin Laden led him to the position of head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The impact of their deaths on the militant groups they headed will not be known for some time. But judging from the death or capture of dozens of other such prominent leaders in the last two decades, the answer is, “probably not very much.” This is because Salafist-takfiri terror groups have significantly adjusted to the military assaults against them, especially since the 2011 American-led Global War on Terror, in which Americans and their allies enjoy serious technological advantages over the militants. This raises the question of whether such extra-judicial drone-and-missile killings are appropriate, legal, or effective in the long run. Or is it enough that they induce significant feel-good vibes among the officers, political leaders and dazzled civilians of the killing hand—in this case the United States?

    2. In South Africa, the visiting president of Sudan, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, briefly faced a situation in which he might not be able to return home, because a South African court had issued an order to prevent his departure and another had ordered him arrested and turned over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. He is charged there with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide related to the conflict in Darfur. The South African government, for reasons not yet clear, allowed his plane to depart, and he escaped—this time—being tried in the ICC. Many in the world see the ICC as the last resort means to hold accountable criminal rulers who escape justice in their own countries. Can that crumbled hope be revived in other situations in the future?

    3. In Israel, the government barred a UN-appointed official who monitors Palestinian rights from entering the country, as it did last year also, because it said that its side of the story on Palestinian rights and living conditions was not adequately heard. This is nonsense, because every UN enquiry scrupulously listens to testimonies from all concerned parties to a conflict. Makarim Wibisono, the Indonesian UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories (that are occupied, controlled or sieged by Israel) was preparing a report for the UN General Assembly in New York. In the meantime, Israeli colonization, annexation, mass imprisonment and shooting and killing of Palestinian civilians, for the most part, continue unabated, and are widely condemned around the world. Yet they remain largely unchecked by legal, political or military means, raising serious questions about how the world should deal with such a situation.

    4. In northern Syria, along the Turkish border, Kurdish and Free Syrian Army troops drove Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) out of the town of Tal Abyad that they had controlled for about a year. This cuts an important supply route by land from southern Turkey to the ISIS heartland around its capital in Raqqa. This important battle showed that determined local fighters defending their own lands could defeat ISIS forces, as they have done in some other such battles in the past year. It raises the question of why Arab, Iranian, Turkish and Kurdish leaders have not coordinated better to make a synchronized ground and air assault against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, given that ISIS, despite its vulgar brutality, is not the mighty force that some people think it is.

I am sure that these four very different approaches to how to resolve situations of violence, atrocity, and occupation are being carefully studied by both law-abiding and criminal actors around the world—individuals, groups and governments alike—who will pursue appropriate policy responses in due course. If the rule of law exempts powerful states or individuals that commit criminal deeds, we should not expect many people to respond to discussions about peace and justice, especially when these are initiated by those democracies whose policies continue to trample on the rule of law—the core of democratic life—in their own lands and abroad.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global