Thursday, August 9, 2007

U.S. Restraint should be a Matter of Law Not Policy

So much that is a matter of "policy" with regard to U.S. actions toward the rest of the world ought to be governed by law instead. I have heard pundits repeat "you can't impeach someone for bad policies." What should be the legal restraints on U.S. actions toward other nations and nationals? Are we not subject to respect universal human rights? Or to respecting sovereignty and free & fair elections? I'm thinking here particularly of Haiti where there is little grey area that a democratically elected leader, Aristide, was kidnapped and Haiti overthrown by criminals whom the U.S. military "released" from prison and financially supported. Is this a matter of "policy"?*

Criminal trials should follow evidence of war crimes. If a U.S. official were found to have committed war crimes or human rights abuses, he or she should receive criminal penalties. And even if the U.S. refused to discipline its officials for misdeeds, the U.S. should not protect its leaders from requests by the U.N. or other nations to try them for war crimes if their citizens were victims.
Do we have any account of how much "blood money" was paid for wrongful deaths of Iraqis? I'm not entirely against this practice since it has precedent in the traditional culture and law of the area; however, with broad enough scope, it may not meet the full obligation. If the penalty is not high enough, it becomes a sort of "cost of doing business." If extreme abuses of power and human rights violations continue without redress, the U.S. and its citizens will never be safe from retaliation from those who have no other recourse to justice. Of course, there is no guarantee of safety however peacefully a nation behaves, yet peace and justice surely is not served by periodic global muggings. If a resource has to be stolen in order to be profitable, perhaps it is the wrong resource. Imposing laws and consequences would have a deep impact in U.S./rest of world relations and U.S. economy. It would make for a rocky transition, as the "free" goodies decline, but ultimatelyit is the right course and leads to better lives on earth in the future.

Related to this is the purpose of the executive branch and what it has the right to do. No one should have the right to use the government for the express purpose of personal gain, to benefit one's associates or payers, land grabs, or for racketeering. The agencies and instruments of government are felicitous to the goals of organized crime; therefore, there must be firm laws in place to prevent government from being used for nefarious purposes. Further, once convicted, they should not be permitted to conspire with their previous associates once out of office. Impeachment would not be sufficient consequence for these violations because such actors may have sufficient power (their own private militias, detectives, allies etc.) independent of those provided by the instruments and agencies of the government to continue their practices in private. Criminal penalties for true "high crimes" are fundamental to a stable democracy. Without consequences to those who misuse government, we may end up living in a post-lapsarian kleptocracy as in Russia or an oligarchic police-state, or an absolute monarchy. With habeas corpus suspended we are already losing the rights that were long the tradition of even a limited monarchy.

Is the situation I describe, the one we are in today? It's hard to tell since in areas where the law is weak and executive privilege is strong, the public lacks the mechanisms to investigate. Further, Bush is seeking to repeal wiretapping and other laws that may well have already been broken. He asks the people to increase his ability to investigate us while decreasing our ability to investigate him and his administration. The executive branch is not required to be as transparent as the other branches. Only the Freedom of Information Act grants the public the right to see documents under its jurisdiction and the release of these documents can take years and may be heavily redacted. Also, the public has a right to know whether any of the U.S. attorneys who were fired, were fired to prevent them from investigating officials in the Bush administration. I hope someday we will learn that and that changes will come about to make officials more accountable and more subject to criminal penalties.

*Randall Robinson, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President.

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