Last week, the BBC reported that “President Barack Obama has signed into law a measure that would bear entry to any UN ambassador whom the US says has engaged in ‘terrorist activity’”. The law is aimed at Iran’s UN ambassador who played a role in the 1979 embassy hostage crisis.
The Iranian ambassador argued that “he acted merely as a translator on a couple of occasions for the hostage-takers, an account corroborated by some of the activists”. In signing the law, President Obama recognised the dangerous subjectivity it introduces, and its capacity to substitute fear mongering for diplomacy. In his signing statement the President suggested that he was responding to hysteria in Congress and would consider the law on an “advisory” basis.
On the one hand, I agree that those who have committed crimes should probably not be diplomats. On the other, there are avenues for the prosecution of international crimes if the U.S. was interested, avenues from which we notoriously shy away in its refusal to ratify the International Criminal Court. “Terrorist activity”, moreover, is a dangerously subjective category, one which would have barred Nelson Mandela and the virtually any leader of an anti-colonial movement from taking part in international forums depending on who was calling the shots.
There is a danger that politically-motivated claims of this kind, levelled by the United States, could be used to shut down diplomatic efforts from countries which fall afoul of our notoriously narrow worldview. Such action could foreclose potential for negotiation and discussion in a world where many leaders are prone to resort to violence without exhausting other alternatives which stand to benefit their publics.
But one thing is very clear from the spirit of the U.S. ruling, which probably violates international law. Neither the current President nor his predecessor, nor any of the top officials of the Bush Administration should be allowed anywhere near the United Nations. Because all of these people have liberally adopted “terrorist activity” to pursue their foreign policy aims.
President Bush committed crimes against peace and launched an illegal war of aggression. His administration authorised and practised torture, rendition, disappearance, and murder. His punitive military attacks on Iraqi cities killed massive numbers of people, and destroyed the country’s infrastructure and institutions. His unleashing of mercenary forces on Iraqis, and the cover-ups which protected some of those mercenaries and many officials and military figures in the United States are surely the actions of a terrorist government.
President Obama escalated the War of Terror, and his primary weapon has been the drones, the use of which has allowed him to substitute murder accompanied by pedagogical collateral damage for the incarceration and torture preferred by the Bush administration. The President has promoted proponents of murder—who defend their lawless killing by referring to “disposition matrices”—and granted impunity to officials from the Bush Administration.
Obama’s drones—the programme was introduced by Bush but expanded in scope by the current administration—are also designed to literally strike terror into their victims and the populations over which they soar, out of sight and out of legal reach. A U.S. journalist described them as “terrifying”, writing that “from the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what the are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death”.
The U.S. investigation into Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq found that U.S. forces had committed “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuse”. And it was only natural that this abuse, which in another setting would have been called “enhanced interrogation” by the Bush Administration, would flourish in the context of a war designed to fight terror with terror, using the weapons, administrative apparatus, and ideological premises of all imperial wars.
Critics of U.S. terror are often asked why they don’t move on and forget about the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the broader war of terror waged by the United States.
My own answer is that no one would ask a society to forget about a serial killer or violent criminal in its midst. The reason that we meet crimes with punishments is to protect our citizenry and make it clear that there are consequences for violating the social contract and taking or abusing human life. If we did not take these actions to apprehend criminals and protect people, those criminals could act with impunity and others would see that they too could act unpunished.
If we take action against people who have killed a few of our fellow citizens so seriously, surely we should be concerned about the engineers of mass killings in which the victims number in the hundreds of thousands. If we prosecute the murderers of individuals in order to protect our community, we should surely prosecute people who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.
After all, if the neoconservatives see that they can wage illegal war and unleash terror with impunity, they will do it again and again, so long as they are persuaded that it will advance their twisted cause, so out of step with the needs and values of our country and our society. This, for me, is the reason why it is important that people who break the law and take human life on such a massive scale, or who violate it through the use of torture and rendition, should be held to account. Until they are, our politics will remain unfocussed and misguided, and our world will not be safe.