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The long road to international justice


Today, February 15th, marks the centenary of the inaugural session of the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague. Bill Bowring explores how international justice has operated since then.

What do we have to celebrate in 100 years of international justice? How should we evaluate Labour’s key role in its founding and continuation?

The Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) was the Court of the League of Nations. The League originated in proposals before WWI, in the 1907 Hague Conference, but became a reality when the League was founded on January 10th 1920 at the Paris Peace Conference which ended the war. The League had 44 states at its start, 31 of which had been allies of Britain, France and the USA. It was the first worldwide intergovernmental organisation. At its peak in 1934-5 it had 58 members, but the USA never joined, and the USSR joined in 1934 only to be expelled after invading Finland.

Of course, most of the planet, with the exception of South America which had already broken free from Spain and Portugal, was ruled by Britain, France and the other European colonial powers. The battle for decolonisation raged through the decades after WWII, and has not yet been completed. All round the world there are peoples with a right to self-determination – the right which had its origins with Marx, Engels and Lenin – which they are still denied.

In 1920 the Council of the League of Nations organised the drafting of the Statute of the PCIJ, which was able to move into the grand Peace Palace in The Hague, constructed in 1913 before WWI. The first session of the PCIJ took place from January 30th to March 24th 1922, with a formal opening on February 15th.

Despite its abject failure to prevent war, the League persisted until 1946, when it had already been replaced by the United Nations, founded on October 24th 1945. The PCIJ continued as the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ), which still resides in the Peace Palace, and also inherited the Statute with its dated language (“civilised nations”, etc.).

What was Labour’s attitude? Through the efforts of Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald, the Keir Starmers of their day, the Labour Party endorsed the idea of a League of Nations at a special conference in December 1917. The Party’s 1918 programme Labour and the New Social Order demanded that a “Universal League or Society of Nations” be established. At another Special Conference in April 1919 they accepted the provisions under which nations in dispute would be obliged to refer their difference to the League’s court.

In its 1928 programme Labour and the Nation, Labour pledged to use the PCIJ, and as Foreign Secretary in MacDonald’s second minority Labour Government of 1929-31, Henderson signed an Optional Clause extending the jurisdiction of the PCIJ to all legal disputes involving Great Britain.

Labour’s programme in no way challenged the existence of the British Empire, or the barbarism and bloodshed through which it was defended.

The dominant view of the progressive radicalism of the postwar Attlee government of 1945-1951, must be revisited against the brutality of its imperial adventures.  At the end of WWII, the Labour government found itself involved in three military interventions, in Indochina, Indonesia and Greece, all initiated while Labour had been in coalition with the Conservatives, but now enthusiastically continued. The welfare state was accompanied by the creation of the warfare state. It was the Labour Party which cemented the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, and Attlee and Labour played a central role in 1949 in establishing NATO. In the 2019 election, Labour confirmed its support for NATO and for the UK’s financial contribution.

Nevertheless, the ICJ has flourished, with some progressive decisions. In 1986, Nicaragua won its case against the USA, over its support for the Contras and other actions. In 1995 the ICJ ruled on the possession and use of nuclear weapons, in an Advisory Opinion which continues to cause problems for nuclear missile submarine commanders. In 2004 it ruled on the illegality of Israel’s Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. And in 2019 it lambasted the UK for its violation of the right to self-determination of Mauritius, when, by duress, it kept the Chagos Islands, and handed Diego Garcia to the USA for its notorious base.

The Human Rights Committee of the UN hears complaints against UN states for individual violations, and there are now three regional courts – the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights – under which individuals and groups can complain against governments. Britain has never accepted the European Convention on Human Rights, despite its being the brain-child of Winston Churchill. Theresa May saw it as a terrorists’ charter. The UK ratified it in 1953 but only allowed complaints to be brought under it in 1966, and immediately suffered several defeats over colonial issues, and only brought it partially into UK law in the Human Rights Act 1988.

The Labour left, initially sceptical about the ECHR because it would give too much power to judges, now defends it against the Tory onslaught.

International Criminal Justice made a shaky start with the creation by the UN Security Council of the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, prosecuting individuals for the crime of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes. The International Criminal Court was created in 1998 after a huge campaign by NGOs, and 123 states have ratified its Rome Statute. It is weakened by the fact that the USA, India, Russia and China have not signed up. But after a start dogged by double standards, and an exclusive focus on Africa, the outgoing Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has broadened its remit, now to include was crimes committed in Palestine.

So it would be far too early to write off the whole of international justice. And for a socialist lawyer like myself it provides opportunities for useful legal work, in my case representing Kurdish and Chechen victims.

Bill Bowring, Colchester CLP, teaches international law and human rights at Birkbeck College. He is International Secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and President of the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights (in 21 European countries).

From → My posts

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