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The Rule Of Law, Or Lawlessness And Terror?

Rami G. Khouri

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So what matters, in the final analysis, the rule of law or the power of the gun? This question remains to be answered for many Arabs who grapple with the three major political challenges that define them and their world ? Iraq, Palestine and American plans for a wholesale reconfiguration of Arab political and economic systems. The interactions and contradictions among these three issues are a major cause for concern, when seen from an Arab perspective, boding ill for this region and, perhaps, also for American-Arab relations in the years to come.

Between them, the USA and Israeli right-wing have created unprecedented insecurity and suspicion throughout the Middle East.

Between them, the USA and Israeli right-wing have created unprecedented insecurity and suspicion throughout the Middle East.

The reason for this concern is that we may be receiving contradictory signals from the words and actions of the US and Israel, leading many in the Middle East to despair of achieving their legitimate rights through peaceful means and opting instead for continued violence and extremism. The fundamental dilemma as seen from this region is that the United States and Israel preach the need for the Arab world to modernise and adopt the rule of law as a governing principle of society, but when the Arabs and others turn to the rule of law on a global scale to resolve the dispute over the separation wall that Israel is building around the occupied West Bank, the rule of law suddenly becomes less relevant or appropriate.

The linkages between Iraq, Palestine, wholesale Arab reform and this week’s hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of the Israeli barrier are powerful and compelling in Arab eyes. They encapsulate the core grievances and aspirations that have defined perhaps the last three generations of Arabs.

When the UN General Assembly asked the ICJ for its opinion on the legality of the separation wall, Israel, the US and some European states decided not to participate in the hearing, arguing that this was not an appropriate forum to deal with a matter that was best handled through negotiations by the parties themselves. Israel says it is building the wall to prevent terrorists from infiltrating from the West Bank, while the Palestinians see the wall as part of an Israeli colonial plan to grab more occupied land and restrict the Palestinians to small enclaves that are totally surrounded by Israel.

The Wall, if completed, will succeed in its intention to create anew in the Holy Land, the dependent Bantustans of apartheid South Africa.

The Wall, if completed, will succeed in its intention to create anew in the Holy Land, the dependent Bantustans of apartheid South Africa.

The legal arguments are important, but do they matter if Israel and the US, in particular, refuse to heed the verdict of the court? The fundamental issue for the Arab world and many other countries is not just whether the separation barrier is legal or not; the bigger, older, more troubling issue is whether Israel and the United States are subject to the same international law that is applied to all other countries in the world.

The issue is not an obscure academic one or a nagging chip on the Arab shoulder. It cuts to the core of the Arab grievance against Israel as a state that can justify any of its actions ? colonisation, pre-emptive warfare, assassinations, ethnic cleansing, mass curfews, systematic urban destruction ? on the grounds of its own security, as it defines and ensures that security. Israel, for example, routinely ignores United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, but anchors the legitimacy of its own modern statehood in the UN General Assembly resolution that partitioned Palestine into predominantly Arab and Jewish states in 1947. The Arabs, on the other hand, are asked to accept the dictates of international law and conventions as these pertain to issues such as terrorism, boycotts and other acts that target Israel.
The natural prototype of his own plastic doll, Bush used the UN only so far as it reinforced his macho image.
In Iraq, the situation is similar. The United States selectively used, and uses, the UN system when this suits its purpose, and ignores the UN when that is more useful. When it was making its case for war against Iraq, Washington passionately and repeatedly referred to Baghdad’s disregard for UN resolutions as a legitimate reason to change the Ba’athist regime. Yet, when that same United Nations asked the ICJ for an opinion on Israel’s separation barrier, that United Nations system suddenly became inappropriate as a reference point in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The consequences of such inconsistent, self-serving and hypocritical behaviour by the US and Israel vis-?-vis the rule of law and the instruments of the UN are very serious in Arab eyes. The political result is a steady, massive drop in American credibility in this region, while small bands of people go to the next level of attacking Israel and the US militarily. Military attacks, occupations and colonial responses by the US and Israel do not solve the underlying problem; they only make it worse.

The United States in particular adds insult to injury when it spends so much time these days preaching to the Arabs the need to modernise and adopt better governance systems. The US is correct in its basic analysis that good governance and the rule of law should be major priority Arab goals, as many in our region have said for decades. But the problems start when we see the US only selectively adhering to the rule of law itself in the international arena, whether vis-?-vis Israel’s separation barrier or pre-emptive war against Iraq. If Washington wants us to be governed by laws while it selectively refuses the verdict of the law and the courts for itself and Israel, both the messenger and the message of the rule of law become badly degraded.

The better option would be for Israel and the US to accept the ICJ’s jurisdiction in offering an advisory opinion on the legality of the separation barrier, and to address Israel’s and the Palestinians’ legitimate security concerns through political means, rather than military force and colonisation. The rule of law is based on the principle that all people have equal rights before a single standard of law, while the actions of Israel and the US reflect the belief that they have somewhat greater rights than others. The consequence of such behaviour over many decades is lawlessness, contempt and terror. The antidote remains a single standard of law that is applied fairly and consistently to all peoples and states.

Published Thursday, February 26th, 2004 - 09:19am GMT

Article courtesy of Jordan Times

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