International Affairs — 24 May 2011
The United States: Above the law

The vintage Hollywood western movie, starring John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart, was characterised by the US Marshall trying to bring law and order to the lawless society called the ‘wild west’. Whilst America could make some claim to having achieved this within America, when it came to upholding its values and laws (including International Law) in the wider world, its record is a lesson in double standards.

The abuses committed by the United States in its ‘war on terror’ under the administration of George W Bush – invading other states on fabricated arguments, torture, kidnapping, detention without trial, prisoner abuse – are all too well recorded, and need no further rehearsal.

What is more dangerous is that abuses on the rule of law have continued under his successor. And whilst the Muslim world has few illusions about the silver tongue and sparkling smile of Barack Obama, many in the West have the impression that Obama has brought a refreshing change to Washington. He hasn’t. He has merely brought exceptional public relations skills to the office which make those of Bill Clinton look amateurish.

An examination of two regions illustrates his, and America’s, disregard for the rule of law he claims to advocate for the world: Occupied Palestine and Pakistan.

The Israeli occupation of Palestine has returned to news in the past two weeks with Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, Obama’s speech at the State Department addressing US Middle East policy and later his address to AIPAC – The American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee.

In the course of these meetings Obama showed a complete disregard the numerous United Nations resolutions that address the region. The UN is seen by many as little more than a tool for great powers to execute their hegemony in the world. However, Western states view the Security Council resolutions as legally binding. That so many resolutions address Israel despite its strongest ally having a right of veto is extraordinary. Yet when that ally then decides that (what is for them) a legal verdict judging Israel has occupied land is the starting point for a negotiation in a so-called peace process, it makes a mockery of law. Imagine a court determining theft, but then the law enforcement agency decides that the restitution for the victim starts with negotiating from a point after the theft!

Indeed, Obama’s contempt for legal rulings in favour of Palestine started before he assumed office, when he pronounced Jerusalem MUST be the capital of Israel. The UN had ruled Jerusalem to be occupied land, and no US President to that date had been so forthright as to pronounce an emphatic endorsement of Israeli occupation. They all had it on the table as a point of negotiation, much as Obama has done for the rest of the occupation. Of course, the Islamic legal ruling differs entirely, not only with 1967 borders; and not only with 1948 borders and the establishment of the occupation; but with the Sykes-Picot that carved up a region that for centuries had been unified with wider ‘Syria’ known as Bilad al Shaam.

As regards Pakistan, since Obama assumed office he has ordered unmanned drone attacks within Pakistan that have killed in excess of one thousand people. Most authoritative monitoring sources suggest the vast majority were civilian ‘non-combatants’.  However, even if they had been ‘enemy combatants’ the US is effectively conducting extrajudicial assassinations. There is no trial, no verdict – simply execution.

Not satisfied with drone bombing Pakistan in violation of all international norms and laws, Obama decided to launch an assassination squad to kill Osama Bin Laden, without any express invitation by Pakistan. These acts would be considered declarations of war by any self-respecting state. Yet the Pakistani government does not respect itself sufficiently to see what their citizens shout about. Obama was unrepentant when he reaffirmed in a BBC interview that the United States would do the same again if it wanted to.

When Obama executed Bin Laden, he spoke of ‘justice’ but most people realised the US action was politically motivated ‘vengeance’. Later, when he addressed the response by US allied regimes to the Arab Uprisings he spoke of the rule of law – yet he has no qualms about ignoring the rule of law when it applies to Palestine, US actions in Pakistan or to ‘friendly regimes’..

Viewed from the Muslim world, such a record would be worthy of a Nobel Prize for Hypocrisy, if one existed. Students of history will not be surprised. Ancient Athens, the birth place of democracy, had no problem denying democratic rights to states they conquered.

For those who would argue, that is how powerful states also act, they are wrong. One of the major points of Islam, that commands the respect of its followers, as well as non-Muslim observers, is the high regard for the rule of law.

Edmund Burke, the Irish political philosopher who became a British Parliamentarian, once wrote about Islamic Shariah law that “To name a Mahomedan government is to name a government by law. It is a law enforced by stronger sanctions than any law that can bind a Christian sovereign. Their law is believed to be given by God; and it has the double sanction of law and of religion, with which the prince is no more authorized to dispense than anyone else.” [1]

Burke recognised that in Islam no one was above the law.

There are many examples in Islamic history that illustrate this. The second Caliph Umar ibn al Khattab was once accounted when his forces engaged in a military conflict with a tribe when diplomatic channels had not been exhausted. When this was brought to his attention he ordered a withdrawal.

On another occasion during his rule, the house of an individual was broken into when there was a strong suspicion of illegal activity. However, when the state was reminded of the sacrosanct nature of the private space, and that entering without permission was illegal – even for the state, no case was brought and the state held liable for doing wrong.

Under the rule of Caliph Ali, a civil dispute with a non-Muslim citizen was judged against the Caliph. And much later, under Muhammad al Fatih, a man wrongly punished by the ruler was judged to be allowed to take equal retribution from the Caliph.

This absolute adherence to the rule of law emanates from the Prophet himself. Once, when asked to intervene in favour of a prominent woman from an influential tribe he said that applying the law selectively, upon the poor or weak more rigorously than the rich or strong, was what brought nations down. He concluded by saying that even if one of his own family were found guilty of a crime, the law must take its course.

In terms of International Law, as it exists today, it can be viewed as a tool of powerful nations. But Islam would view treaties signed as legally binding, and international norms to be respected.

With that standard in mind, the view from the Muslim world towards this ‘rock star’ president is pretty cynical. Indeed, one could argue that the deceptive image painted through media manipulation hides an American contempt for its own legal principles in the rest of the world that it cherishes for itself.


[1] Edmund Burke, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke Vol 9, 2005

Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain.


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