This is a summary of Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity (Penguin, 4th ed, 2012) ch 2 (‘The Post-war World’). It is a commentary and critique on the development of international human rights law in the period 1945–2012.

On 10 December 1998 — the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson said:

Count up the results of fifty years of human rights mechanisms, thirty years of multibillion dollar development programmes and endless high-level rhetoric and the general impact is quite underwhelming … this is a failure of implementation on a scale that shames us all.

Robertson argues that the development of human rights following the second world war was a reaction ‘against the tyranny and racist ideology of Nazism’ that ‘proved powerless to move politicians or diplomats to do anything much about genocide, or any other of the multiple and massive breaches of human rights which took place over the next fifty years.’ The many conferences and human rights instruments achieved nothing until the trial of Duško Tadić by the Hague Tribunal in May 1997. Robertson attributes the arrest of General Pinochet in London in 1998 to developments in the ‘real world’ spurred on by non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch rather than the actions of politicians, diplomats and UN bureaucrats. A great deal of public support for human rights enforcement is the result of mass media broadcasting scenes of tragedy in Bosnia and Rwanda (as examples).

… television pictures of refugees massed on the Kosovo borders initially swung public support behind te NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, although had it bombed the Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica in 1995, or demonstrated any resolve to arrest their leaders indicted by the Hague Tribunal, then the later tragedy may have been avoided. Equally, had the world worked out a way of putting Pinochet, Pol Pot and Idi Amin behind bars within a decade of their crimes against humanity, Milošević, Saddam Hussein, Bashir and Assad may have been deterred from following their example.

1946–76: Thirty Inglorious Years

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’), the Genocide Convention and the four Geneva Conventions form the basis for a promised ‘New World Order’. The United Nations Security Council (‘UNSC’) commenced military action under the UN Charter against North Korea in 1950: achieved in the absence of the Soviet Union which was boycotting proceedings because Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic of China was the fifth permanent UNSC member. Both sides committed atrocities ‘in complete defiance of the Geneva Conventions’. With the arms race beginning in 1949, Stalin’s gulag ‘devoured millions and provided slave labour to build the vast scientific complexes needed for the Soviet nuclear industry’ and the Great Powers defied the Hague Conventions to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Although Khrushchev condemned Stalin’s show trials in February 1956, western attention was diverted towards Britain’s ‘last gasp of colonialism’ that was the Suez Crisis. As a result, the Hungarian Revolution went nearly unnoticed, and ‘Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to make mockery of the Universal Declaration promise that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.’ Aside from the Hungarian Revolution, Robertson also draws attention to the Berlin Wall as an attempt to destroy freedoms that ‘might be asserted against the interests of communism’.

Robertson then turns to the United States, condemning McCarthyism and discrimination ‘as petty as that which was imposed by law in South Africa.’ Robertson compares the US foreign policy of interventionism to that of the Soviet Union, stating that ‘the Americans worked their will through CIA-financed fronts rather than by sending in their own tanks.’ Examples include the assistance of the 1954 Guatemalan Coup D’état that overthrew a democratically elected left-wing government and the CIA’s attempts to oust Fidel Castro in Cuba that resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Human Rights Commission, established in accordance with Article 68 of the UN Charter, ‘met for a few weeks each year, riven by bloc-voting and by the refusal of member states to allow themselves or other members to be criticized.’ The resolution of the Human Rights Committee in 1947 that it did not have power to take action against human rights violations meant that for the next twenty years it achieved little more than paperwork. It took twenty years for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to be drafted, and a further decade for ratification. In the interim, the Commission was largely silent on human rights breaches.

The UN was able to take action against the pariah state of South Africa: the Soviet Union had encouraged the other African countries to unite in condemnation of apartheid, and it had few powerful supporters apart from Israel. The UNSC ordered a trade boycott against South Africa, and the General Assembly condemned apartheid as a crime against humanity. Riding on the waves created by the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War, the 1968 UN Conference at Tehran proclaimed:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states a common understanding of peoples of the world concerning the inalienable and inviolable rights of all members of the human family and constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community.

Three months later the Soviet Union intervened in the Prague Spring to halt the Czechoslovakian Revolution. ‘The UN Human Rights Commission did and said nothing. The General Assembly was also useless — an idle forum for diplomats … . Its most damaging action, for international law, was to mis-state it when it decided to make a unanimous “Friendly Nations Declaration” in 1970, one part of which became a tyrant’s charter:’

No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. Consequently, armed intervention and all forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law.

Robertson is critical of the Human Rights Commission’s silence over ‘the CIA’s provocations in Chile’ that led to the military overthrow of the democratically-elected Dr Salvador Allende, and resulted in the ‘disappearance’ under General Pinochet’s coup that spread to other Latin American military juntas. He also charges the Commission with turning its back on ‘the worst human rights violation since the war’ at that point: ‘the mass rape of up to 300,000 Bangladeshi women, and killing of even more men’ during Pakistan’s invasion of ‘a country it insisted was East Pakistan’. These ‘ethnic policy’ rapes, later repeated by Serb troops, went unpunished for forty years, demonstrating the ‘powerlessness — indeed pointlessness — of the Commission’. During the 1960s and ’70s, the Vietnam war ‘proved another graveyard for the good intentions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.’

During the Cold War the superpowers sought to use international law to justify their ideologically-driven actions. Robertson cites the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 as an example, where President Johnson justified the US’ actions by declaring ‘he was merely enforcing a regional rule that communist governments were incompatible with the Inter-American system. Robertson also cites the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’, under which international socialist law permitted ‘fraternal military assistance’ in the protection of a country’s socialist system: this was used to justify the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The best that can be said for Cold War law was that superpowers felt obliged to resort to such fictions, covering up as best they could the atrocities committed by their own allies in order to accuse more loudly the other side. Action against South Africa excepted, it was not until the end of the Vietnam War, and the emergence in Chila of a dictator who was so confident of American support that he would openly resort to mass torture, that some states began to take human rights seriously.

In response to Pinochet, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration Against Torture in 1975. The International Covenants entered into force in 1976, the same year as the UNSC urged support for the African National Congress, and in 1977 a trade ban was imposed on South Africa and Rhodesia, while human rights was adopted as a foreign policy objective of the Carter Administration. In Eastern Europe, Andrei Sakharov (one of the ‘fathers of the Russian bomb’) began criticising Soviet policies, protected by his personal clout. ‘Behind the scenes, his courage was deplored by Western diplomats almost as much as by the Soviet government — Kissinger raged that he damaged détente. … Sakharov bypassed the UN system completely, deriding its partisan politics and its “quiet diplomacy”.’

What the entry into force of the twin Covenants had done in 1976 was to make human rights abuses a legitimate subject of international concern. There was growing acceptance of Sakharov’s argument, used in his 1973 open letter to the US Congress calling for trade sanctions against Russia until it abandoned its policy of refusing Jews the right to emigrate to Israel. Such a sanction, he contended persuasively, ‘does not represent interference in the internal affairs of socialist countries, but simply a defence of international law, without which there can be no mutual trust’.

The Human Rights Commission and Council

The record of the Human Rights Commission, ever since its initial resolution not to act on human rights violations, was woeful.

The UN Human Rights Commission’s members ‘had no wish to create precedents for investigations or enforcement procedures which might be used against an ally or against themselves’, so shied away from criticism of human rights violations such as Pol Pot’s genocide, ‘Emperor Bokassa’s primitive savagery or … mass murder by Idi Amin.’ Bloc voting (initially West-East, later North-South) defeated many resolutions, even when they ought to have been passed (eg against China in 1990 and 2000 for the Tiananmen Square incident and imprisonment of the Falun Gong respectively).

Robertson criticises the partisan nature of the Commission; in 1995 all Third World country members defeated a resolution condemning the overthrow of democracy in Nigeria and unfair treason trials. Working through ‘quiet diplomacy’, Robertson argues that there is little evidence of the Commissions ‘Resolution 1503 procedure’ achieving any solid results. Further, the open ‘Resolution 1235 procedure’ to appoint a study group for a particular country or subject targeted countries that ‘lacked lobbying influence at the UN’ and Special Rapporteurs have been unable to achieve much due to a lack of authority and lack of compliance by states.

Robertson goes on to criticise the Commission’s ‘instinctive deference to its own members’ and ‘bureaucratic commitment to “neutrality” in any fact-finding or adjudication”.’ This would have been resolved had the members of the Commission not been representatives of their respective governments, but instead appointed as independent experts: the appointments were political rather than judicial. The Commission could not insist that investigators were given broad investigative powers, nor could it feasibly investigate the major powers and their allies.

The Commission consequently failed to confront Idi Amin in Uganda, who actually used African members to direct Commission attention away from his murders. Compounding this, ‘states with appalling human rights records’ such as Cuba, Zimbabwe, China, Algeria, Libya, Guatemala, Sudan and Saudi Arabia ‘puport[ed] to sit in judgment on the human rights violations of others.’ Libya was elected to chair deliberations of the Commission in 2003, with the support of thirty-three of the fifty-three members. Robertson describes Libya as a ‘one-time practitioner of torture, assassination and mid-flight aircraft destruction’, yet only three countries (the US, Canada and Guatemala) voted against its chairing the Commission.

Libya held this as vindication: their government was declared to have ‘a clean sheet with regard to human rights’. Kofi Annan stated that ‘states have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticise others’ but was unable to replace the Commission with a smaller group of ‘states qualified by the excellence of their own human rights.’

In 2006 the General Assembly abolished the Commission, replacing it with the Human Rights Council. Despite bearing ‘the hallmarks of compromise with the same African and Asian states which are determined that their violations will not be exposed or condemned’ the Council ‘has a more positive and proactive mandate’. Nevertheless, it the Council is large and full of diplomats rather than experts, who are elected by secret ballot by the General Assembly, divided into regional bloc with Western Europe and Others (‘The only regional bloc consistently in support of human rights’) being given only seven seats: ‘inevitably some of the countries whose presence disgraced the old commission were returned to the new Council at the first election in May 2006.’ Lack of cooperation continues to hinder meaningful progress, but investigational work has improved. Nevertheless, there have been some questionable appointments: China, Indonesia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, The Philippines, Pakistan and Nigeria.

The main work of the Human Rights Council is periodic review of states’ human rights records. Robertson explains the three-stage process as involving a twenty-page, self-assessing report by each state; public presentation of each report, accompanied by a half hour of questioning; and the publishing of a summary of proceedings. At the second stage, non-governmental organisations and independent experts may provide reports and ask questions, somewhat legitimising the process. Criticisms are, however, ‘rare’, and regional alliances tend to protect their own members (eg Ben Ali’s Government, reviewed in 2008, was praised by Tunisia’s African and Muslim allies; also Iran, which was defended by allies including Bangladesh, Lebanon and Nicaragua).

Disgustingly, the session [on Iran] ended with orchestrated applause. Diplomats have made a nonsense of the Council’s claim to be objective and apolitical, and it is to Ban Ki-moon’s credit that, in exasperation, he told its members ‘you must rise above partisan posturing and regional divides.’

Robertson raises concern that this ‘has proved impossible in the case of Israel, which a majority of Council members cordially loathe and obsessively condemn’: 44% of state-specific resolutions have been directed at Israel, while only one has been directed at Iran, Belarus and Yemen; two against Syria and Libya; and none against Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia. This has undermined the Council’s work, and necessary investigations have been hampered by accusations of bias and non-compliant attitudes. Nevertheless, the report of Richard Goldstone led

to changes in Israeli Defense Forces procedures for protecting civilians in urban warfare and for using white phosphorous, and it did criticize Hamas (although not as severely as that organization deserved) for its unprovoked rocket attacks and for putting civilians at risk by deliberately having its combatants fire their rockets from densely populated areas and using mosques, hospitals and schools for military purposes.

However, the UNSC has not taken further steps to investigate alleged human rights violations described in Human Rights Council reports. The UNSC should have referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, following Human Rights Council condemnation of the killings in Syria as a crime against humanity; China and Russia exercised its veto powers to prevent action against Syria.

The Human Rights Committee System

States voting in favour of the Universal Declaration in 1948 did not anticipate for a moment that their vote meant they were assuming any obligation to enforce the rights declared. None the less … the General Assembly directed the Human Rights Commission to proceed with the drafting of a treaty which would, upon ratification, oblige states to guarantee human rights to their citizens as part of their domestic law and would set up some mechanism to monitor their progress to this end.

Ideological divides over the importance of civil and political rights (favoured by the West) and economic and social rights (preferred by communist countries) resulted in two separate treaties being presented to the General Assembly in 1966. Ratification did not occur until 1976, though with limited superpower support: ‘the US … did not ratify the civil covenant until 1992’. The Optional Protocol, that provides recourse for individuals to the Human Rights Committee for violations of the Civil Covenant, has been signed by just 114 states; eight of the world’s most powerful countries had not signed in 2012. The complaints mechanism is lacking from the Economic, Social and Cultural Covenant. Instead, ‘member states are supposed to submit five-yearly reports on their “progress” in guaranteeing second geenration rights to a subcommittee of the Economic and Social Council, but most countries’ reports are overdue and the subcommittee has no power to do anything about these defaults.’

Robertson attributes the materialisation and ratification of the ‘twin Covenants’ to ‘the atrocious brutality of events’ between 1946 and 1976: Nazism was imitated by apartheid ‘in a less extreme but generally vicious form’ such that the Soviet Union ‘was the first to sponsor the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid’ (despite, Robertson is quick to add, ‘all the dissidents still in it gulags and its own suppression of majorities in satellite states’). The 1969 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was also a result of apartheid. Robertson states that apartheid was the new evil that put human rights back on the global agenda.

The Human Rights Committee has two roles: ‘(1) to “study” reports submitted by state parties and to relay “observations” to those states about their performance in promoting human rights; (2) to serve as the body to which individuals or groups may complain against their state if it has signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention’. Members serve in a personal capacity, but this is undermined by the fact that governments ‘usually make sure their nominees are … fully alive to the importance of state sovereignty and the need to avoid criticism of their nominator and its allies.’ This has meant that states have avoided nominating judges or independent legal professionals. The Committee is, to its detriment Robertson argues, not a court and the language is couched in diplomatic terms rather than judicial terms (eg, it receives ‘written communications’ that ‘receive consideration’ and allegations are ‘brought to the attention’ of the offending party, which has six months to ‘clarify’ the matter). It is ‘starved of funds, with eighteen part-time members of variable quality and integrity and a handful of overworked staff, its “views” tend to be brief, poorly argued opinions on the facts, excessively deferential states and quick to take refuge in technicalities as a way to avoid adverse decisions.’

However, Robertson does draw attention to positive uses of the Committee in the context of federal governments taking action against provincial governments. Examples Robertson cites is that where the Committee held a law requiring Quebecois to advertise in French breached the freedom of expression of English-speaking Quebecois, and in Australia where the federal government abolished the criminalisation of homosexual conduct in Tasmania by referring to the view of the Committee that the prohibition was unreasonable. The Committee ‘did act in this case like a court, delivering an important and well-argued decision that the Covenant right not to be discriminated against on grounds of sex included sexual orientation.’ But, Robertson argued, these cases were only successful because there was support from the countries involved.

Despite these positive aspects, the process is heavily gamed by states who are able to conceal their abuses of human rights and hampered by the Committee’s delay in dealing with reports. There is a lack of involvement in investigating claims of human rights violations, and the Human Rights Committee tends not to criticise:

Libya, a truly brutal state, submitted its report in 1995, just after Gaddafi had given a blood-curdling order for assassination of expatriate dissidents, and while he was thwarting justice over Lockerbie. His report was short and utterly dishonest. Three years later the HRC issued its verdict, complimenting Libya on its treatment of women and expressing polite ‘concern’ at the murder and torture of oppositionists and the lack of any independent legal system.

Those conventions that empower committees of experts to monitor compliance tend to be stacked with members chosen by diplomats who avoid ‘rocking the boat’. Robertson cites the failure of the committee of experts of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to reprimand the Vatican for its involvement in covering up child sexual abuse within Catholic institutions worldwide, despite it being described as ‘endemic’ by judicial enquiries in Ireland in 2010. Not all states are members of the Covenant or Optional Protocol, severely weakening the Committee’s effect, while states that are deliberately ignore the Committee. ‘Countries which care nothing for human rights can quite brazenly ignore the HRC, or simply remain outside the voluntary covenant system’ and ‘not a single inter-state complaint has been made since the system came into operation in 1979.’

Robertson suggests that the Committee needs more legitimacy to make up for its record of failure: it ‘would perhaps be met with more sympathy were it to issue powerful and well-reasoned judgments on issues of individual liberty’ rather than cursory economic and social issues. Robertson summarises his concerns thus:

  1. The HRC’s composition is fraught with political appointments and bloc voting, such that competence and experience are not usually the most important characteristics of members.
  2. The HRC meets for just nine weeks per year.
  3. The HRC does not hold hearings or adversarial proceedings — everything is done bureaucratically on paper.
  4. The HRC is dependent on the UN Secretariat for structure, funding and status: it is a UN organ.
  5. The HRC cannot compel states to do their duties under the Civil Covenant.
  6. The HRC and other UN committees do not have investigative powers, resources or personnel, making its monitoring role largely ineffective.
  7. The HRC’s work is not widely reported, due partly to closed proceedings and partly to lack of detailed reasoning.
  8. The HRC cannot enforce its views, and states routinely ignore them; death row prisoners are sometimes executed expeditiously because they have written to the HRC.

Some Enforcement at Last: The European Convention, and Other Regions

Robertson argues that while the UN quickly slowed in its progress on human rights after the Universal Declaration, the Council of Europe took up the cause, beginning in 1950 with the European Convention on Human Rights (entered into force 1953) that combined the Declaration with principles drawn from English common law. The Convention established a commission and a court, and obliged states to change their laws to conform with the treaty: this was ‘the first time in history that states were prepared to give an external court a treaty power to require changes in their domestic law’ and allowed petitioning by ‘any person, non-governmental organization or group’.

Despite being progressive, it was restricted for several decades by the delayed acceptance of the authority of the court and the reluctance of states to make complaints about each other. In contemporary terms, the European Convention system offers sophisticated human rights protection for 47 states, ‘compliance is normal and the quality of human rights law emerging … is relatively high. Crucially, if negatively, its success may be due to the fact that it has no connection whatsoever with the United Nations. Robertson attributes a great deal of the success to the fact that adverse decisions are implemented under supervision under which states comply (including, as necessary, enacting new legislation).

In terms of tackling controversial issues, the Court has sometimes shied away from questions of morality, as in the case of its refusal to strike down religious censorship and blasphemy laws because they are ‘within state “margins of appreciation”.’

However, it has been prepared to extend a degree of tolerance to homosexuals, at least in countries where there is no ‘large body of opinion hostile or intolerant towards homosexual acts committed in private between consenting adults’ — an unsatisfactory rationale which would allow sodomy to remain a crime in Malaysia and other Muslim states. The whole point of human rights is to protect innocent minorities against malevolent prejudice, and the ‘margin of appreciation’ doctrine, appropriate for cases where there are harmless cultural differences, should not be erected into a shield for majority oppression.

On the other hand, the Court has more vigorously protected rights outside issues of morality, and protected the rights of suspects to be held for longer than four days without access to a court. In many ways, the European Court of Human Rights ‘has become the model human rights court, proof positive that international law can work to enforce fundamental freedoms across a swathe of countries despite some differences in culture and tradition’ and has generally received popular respect and support. It is also well-funded and comprised of judges, though Robertson raises concerns about its ability to cope with increasing volumes of complaints from Eastern Europe.

Robertson raises the significant point that the European Court of Human Rights includes the International Court of Justice practice of allowing a judge from a ‘defendant’ state to sit on hearings and appeals with full voting powers.

The official reason for the practice was to reassure nervous governments that the court would have at least one sympathetic member who would know about the domestic legal system, but this is no longer a necessary political expedient. There have been some abject examples of the ‘state party judge’ defending his indefensible state (when the UK was held in breach for permitting the caning of juvenile delinquents, for example, the English judge dissented on the grounds that his own beatings at Eton had done him a power of good).

Across the Atlantic, the Inter-American System has a convention, commission and court that includes many members of the Organization of American States. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) includes a commission that monitors and receive complaints, financed by the African Union. In certain Commonwealth Nations, the Privy Council sits as an effective external human rights court (although Robertson explains that this has caused many countries to abolish or attempt to abolish Privy Council appeals as a result of its decisions on death penalties). ‘Regrettably, attempts to broaden Privy Council membership and extend its jurisdiction have failed, leaving the Commonwealth with no effective mechanism for deterring oppressive conduct by its members, whether in the form of Mugabe’s electoral fraud and his racist attacks on whites, or military overthrow of democratic government’. No external or regional system exists for Arab or Asian countries.

In the Inter-American context, Robertson laments the political rivalries between the Commission and Court that results in few referrals (‘regrettable, since the seven-person court has boasted some fine jurists’). Nevertheless, the Court has protected freedom of expression ruling that journalists cannot be required to join a government-controlled association, and ordered reparations be paid by a government to the family of a man ‘disappeared’ in Honduras. This is despite the United States’ refusal to ratify the Inter-American Convention and accept the jurisdiction of the Court.

Robertson blames the failings of the African Charter (which aimed to fuse personal liberty with cultural duties) on its becoming a ‘creature of the Organization of African Unity (“OAU”), a rapidly political organization which was dominated by some of the worst violators of human rights, such as Mengistu, Barre, Mobutu, Gaddafi and Idi Amin’ and which was obsessed with maintaining colonial borders that had been drawn up during the nineteenth century by ‘mindlessly oppos[ing] any form of intervention in the internal affairs of states’. The provisions of the African Charter deferred to domestic law, regardless of their effect on human rights.

The African Commission lacks enforcement powers or a court to deal with violations; its members are not independent and its complaints process is confidential. Political instability in Gambia, where the Commission was housed, is typical of the deep problems within Africa that are hindering human rights progress. Again, it is understaffed, does not receive the periodic reports from member states that is required, and has a slow case turnover. It also refuses communications ‘written in disparaging or insulting language directed against the state concerned’ or that use descriptions such as ‘regime of torturers’ or ‘government of barbarism’.

The OAU has transmogrified into the African Union, a body which has already strongly supported Robert Mugabe and failed to act effectively to stop the killings in Darfur: only international outrage prevented it from offering presidency in 2007 to Sudan, the most blatant human rights offender on the continent. In 2008 the African Union voted to establish the African Court of Justice and Human Rights (ACJHR). Incredibly, however, it decided to deny automatic standing to victims and NGOs unless their state permitted such actions … .

The African Court of Human Rights had not heard a single case by its tenth anniversary in 2008.

Reapolitik Rules OK

In Robertson’s view, the victims of human rights abuses (especially those in Eastern Europe) have done the most to advance human rights globally. He also gives great credit to non-government organisations, especially Amnesty International, for their independent work to aid the plight of victims worldwide (including in Angola, Budapest, Texas and Ghana). Further, the media has assisted in bringing widespread attention to human rights abuses (especially CNN, which placed human rights on its agenda).

While little was done against the atrocities of the CIA-backed Holden Roberto in Angola or the KGB-backed Colonel Mengistu in Ethiopia, it was possible to take action against a state if it ‘was exceptionally small and its behaviour very bizarre.’ Robertson demonstrates with with Grenada, where ‘power-crazed politicians … went berserk and killed their leader’. The subsequent American invasion restored democracy, but was ‘the right thing for the wrong reason’: rather than a humanitarian intervention it was a move to halt a perceived (but erroneous) communist threat, such that even the Thatcher Government in Britain condemned it.

The ‘communications revolution … moved [audiences] to pity, and then to anger, about the inability of politicians to stop state-sponsored killings’ and things began to change in the 1980s. Progress however, was somewhat ironic: Robertson explains that while there had been enormous outcry over the tortures committed by the Shah of Iran, and ‘satisfaction’ at the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, this quickly became horror at the religious fanaticism of his successor, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur for Iran, as well as Amnesty International, ‘alerted the world … to the killings, but the weak-willed diplomat allowed himself to be fobbed off with lies by the Iranian government, most of whose high-ranking politicians had enthusiastically implemented the Ayatollah’s merciless decree’ that religious and political dissidents were to be killed.

Robertson laments the inaction of the Human Rights Commission with regard to Iran (even though many politicians responsible, indifferent or complacent are still alive) or in Latin America where ‘Members of the vicious military juntas … took their ill-gotten gains into retirement along with their amnesties against prosecution for murder and torture’. Robertson then turns to attack the United States for training and supplying Nicaraguan contra rebels, laying mines outside Nicaraguan ports, and attacking the nation’s infrastructure.

When Nicaragua brought the US before the International Court of Justice, the US argued at first that the Court had no jurisdiction. When that argument was lost, it ungraciously walked out, announcing that it would not be bound by any decision that did not suit the interests of America. Then it withdrew its agreement under Optional Clause, so that it could not be forced before the Court again.

Robertson criticises the US’ for refusing to sign the 1997 Ottawa Convention that banned anti-personnel land mines, and for voting against the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998. ‘The Nation with the most to offer the human rights movement in the twenty-first century was prepared to do so only on the condition that other countries were the targets.’

China is not spared criticism either: Robertson raises China’s abysmal human rights record, including the whitewash of the Cultural Revolution and imprisonment of pro-democracy protesters, not to mention the Tiananmen Square massacre. ‘After, and as a result of, Tiananmen Square, the British Parliament hastily vouchsafed Hong Kong a bill of rights, before the handover to China.’

There were no television cameras in the streets of Halabja in 1998 when Saddam Hussein’s troops gassed the Kurdish population, killing 5,000 with an improved derivative of Zyklon-B, the gas used in Nazi concentration camps and now, by obscene irony, supplied to Iraq by German chemical companies. Genocide did not halt the rush to do business with Iraq’s megalomaniac dictator. Donald Rumsfeld, and trade ministers from the governments of Britain, France, Germany and Italy headed commercial delegations out to make a killing: they supplied him with arms and arms-making equipment in such abandon that he was genuinely surprised when they objected to his using them for the invasion of Kuwait.

For the first time since the Korean War, the UNSC approved military intervention: Iraq had lost all superpower support. Robertson argues that President Bushs’ ‘knee-jerk respect for state sovereignty [that] halted General Schwarzkopf’s yomp towards Baghdad’ was a mistake: had the Baghdad been taken, and Saddam Hussein captured and put on trial, subsequent human rights abuses in Iraq would have been avoided.

Robertson criticises the actions taken against Somalia in 1993, where the 25,000 UN Peacekeepers swiftly became enemies ‘when they made the mistake of taking sides in a many-sided civil war. They sided against the Mogadishu warlord General Aidid, because his followers were responsible for ambushing a UN contingent and killing two dozen Pakistani soldiers. In late 1993, President Clinton withdrew troops from Somalia ‘leaving, once, again, a country abandoned in an even greater mess than it was in when they touched down.’

In 1993 the UNSC established a criminal court to punish the crimes against humanity committed in the former Yugoslavia. The impression of international justice faded quickly, as Rwanda descended into genocidal chaos. Despite warnings that the Hutu majority would turn on the Tutsi majority, the South Africans and French continued supplying weapons and the General Assembly elected Rwanda to a non-permanent member of the UNSC.

Although UN commanders in Rwanda received information about the pending ethnic violence, requests to intervene were denied. As the death told mounted to more than 800,000, the United States and United Kingdom refused to intervene, despite being bound by the Genocide Convention to do so. Both governments denied it was genocide (it was ‘black on black violence’ in which the West had no place to intervene). Instead of bolstering its numbers (and saving several hundred thousand human lives) the UNSC decided to remove all of its troops.

An independent commission headed by Bengt Carlsson later condemned UN officials for failing to act despite knowledge of the impending holocaust, and accused Britain and the US of refusing to acknowledge the killings as genocide in order to avoid their obligations under the Genocide Convention.

The withdrawal of UN ‘protectors’ resulted in the massacre of thousands of refugees — ‘the daily killing rate was at least five times that of the Nazi death camps.’ Regardless, no action was taken against those diplomats who refused to call the killings by their true name, though a tribunal was set up to ‘punish the authors of the Rwandan genocide’.

The Srebrenica Question

In July 1995, General Mladić’s Bosnian Serb army executed 7,000 Muslims males and transported 23,000 elderly men, women and children from Srebrenica. This occurred ‘under the noses of the UN’s “Blue Helmets”, and in some respects with their complicity.’ Despite Security Council Resolution 819 charging NATO commanders with taking ‘the necessary measures, including the use of force’ to protect Srebrenica, aerial deployment was not deployed to save the ‘save haven’.

Robertson does not, by any means, defend the actions of the Bosnian Serb commanders, who attacked Srebrenica ‘in aggressive defiance of international law’ and in breach of the Geneva Convention. The war crimes were blatant acts of ethnic, religious and racial genocide — the worst war crime in Europe since the end of the Second World War, and ‘committed several years after the United Nations had established the Hague Tribunal as a means of deterring exactly such offences.’

Did Srebrenica, then, signal the futility of expecting the prospect of punishment to deter those hellbent on committing crimes against humanity?

Robertson argues that the Hague Tribunal was at the time a ‘paper tiger’ and while initially frightening to the Bosnian Serb leaders, was not immediately effective.

Srebrenica ‘was a Muslim city surrounded by predominantly Serbian countryside.’ Robertson explains that while it would have been prudent to surrender the city to Serbia with guarantees, or to transport the entire population to safety, this became untenable by 1993. Instead, it was declared a ‘safe area’ by UNSC Resolution 819, protected by international law and international forces.

Unfortunately, no UN members offered troops to put force behind the resolution. Only 7,400 troops were provided for six enclaves. A battalion of Dutch troops protected Srebrenica; their insufficient numbers cowered when the Serbs attacked and their mere presence prevented the UN from ordering NATO airstrikes that would have halted the Serb advance. The town was lost and many were killed.

Robertson attributes the failings to what he calls the ‘Mogadishu factor’: ‘states intervening from humanitarian motives refused to risk the lives of their own soldiers to make that intervention effective.’ This had happened in Rwanda, with the withdrawal of Belgian peacekeeping troops that could have taken action to prevent massacre, and was repeated in Srebrenica a year later.

Both the Dutch and the Belgians were morally guilty for making a fashionable gesture of sending soldiers under the impossible condition that they should not be required to fight. But the problem was more fundamental: it stemmed from the diplomatic mindset that assumed peace could be secured without justice. If the UN is to protect a city or a people, it must have a clear idea of whom it is protecting them from, and treat these aggressors as the enemy. Soldiers must be sent to fight, and politicians at home must be prepared them to die, in the cause of protecting the innocent (or at least the people promised protection) from attack.

Robertson concludes by noting the failure of the twentieth century to see widespread human rights protection. ‘The diplomats had drafted all the treaties necessary to define human rights, and the politicians had signed them because they would have no practical or legal effect, since violators would not be called to account other than through a polite and powerless UN committee system.’ Robertson praises the human rights movement and its NGO networks, however, for their work in calling for justice.