Sunday, 1 November 2009

War Crimes and Moral Relativism

Last night I made the mistake of listening to BBC Radio 4's programme The Moral Maze. This was a mistake for a number of reasons. One of the key ones is that despite its apparent status as a programme that discusses "moral principles" it invariably is dominated by journalists, commentators and politicians who have the vaguest notion of what such things as moral principles are. The most striking example of this lack of sense of moral principle is certainly the Director of the Institute of Ideas Claire Fox. On last night's programme she advanced a view of international law and the notion of war crimes that amounted to the clearly relativist conception that it was intrinsically impossible to have agreement on what constituted "war crimes" so there was no point in trying.

Fox's concern with the issue of war crimes dates back to her previous role, highlighted on her personal description on the Institute of Idea's website with the magazine Living Marxism (later called LM). In her capacity of involvement with this magazine Fox was part of a campaign by this magazine in support of Republika Srpska's view of the internment camp at Trnopolje, principally by publishing in the February 1997 issue an article by Thomas Deichmann. Deichmann was a chief witness in the defence of Dusko Tadic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague. Tadic was charged with a series of crimes against humanity in the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from northern Bosnia and was convicted and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Despite the fact that Deichmann's testimony was in defence of a man subsequently convicted of war crimes he was presented by LM primarily as an "expert witness" at a series of trials the jurisdiction of which they were in the process of contesting.

The article LM magazine published by Deichmann alleged that ITN journalists had substantially fabricated a report concerning the Serb camp at Trnopolje and led to a libel suit against the magazine filed by ITN. The magazine lost this case against ITN, had a substantial award made against it and subsequently folded as a result. At no point during Fox's presentation of an essentially relativist argument about war crimes during the Moral Maze programme were any of her background in being part of a magazine that engaged so directly in defence of Republika Srpska mentioned. Due to this her argument could have appeared no more than a wooly attack on the idea that there could be such a thing as "international law" or any notion of standards of international justice. Such a position is problematic enough in itself but, when aligned with a past as a revisionist concerning the substance of the issue of the programme itself she emerges as someone with little credit in terms of addressing substantial moral issues.

The defence that LM magazine made of its original article in the libel trial was seriously intellectually confused since, during the course of the trial, it was admitted by both the editor of the magazine, Mick Hume (who now runs Spiked On-Line) and Deichmann himself that the camp in question was indeed a brutal place at which rape, beatings and murders (aka "war crimes") were, indeed, taking place. The primary argument they apparently made in response to ITN was that the Serb camps should not be compared to Nazi-style concentration camps with the implied suggestion that only these could be classed as being legitimately ones to which the term "war crimes" could be attached (a rendition further of Fox's relativist argument as given in the Moral Maze). As Fox put this point on last night's show, any mention of war crimes in connection with the Bosnian conflict suggests a connection with the Holocaust, a connection that she takes to "belittle" the Holocaust itself. This elevation of the Holocaust to an absolute status underpins the generally relativist view of "war crimes" otherwise adopted by Fox, Hume and Deichmann.

The general problem with the arguments of Fox et al and their presentation on a show apparently concerned with "moral principles" is connected to a parallel failure to investigate what is meant by "war crimes" when such are alleged to have been carried out by President Bush and ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Iraq War. On the one hand, there are those who articulate a position of "war crime" or "illegal war" on the absurd ground that a war has not been ratified by the UN and on the other hand there are those who deny that the term "war crime" has any meaning other than political except in a specially sanctified "absolute" case that renders all other judgments merely relativist in comparison. Both such positions merit resistance and indicate a substantial need for concern with the vocabulary of "war crime" including a return to investigation of its meaning prior to articulating its use. For a more extended comment on the background, history and nature of the case LM fought and lost with ITN and the reasons for viewing it as particularly important in this area see two articles by David Campbell here.

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