10 March 2005

On Despotism

Today's news contains a fascinating, and apparently-but-perhaps-not coincidental, mix of items on various aspects of despotism. On the one hand, there's an interesting essay in the Japan Times entitled "Avoiding Sham Democracy."

Attempts to take hurried shortcuts, or to push through changes on a partisan basis by sheer weight of elected majority, may sound democratic, but they are not. True democracy is not just a simple matter of collecting the most votes. Without being rooted in sound and universally accepted constitutional principles it is meaningless, at best a sham, at worst another destroyer of liberties. This is the lesson that aspiring democrats in the Middle East will have to learn. But it is also a lesson of which the present generation of political leaders in the more mature democracies, such as Britain and the United States, need constantly reminding. At the moment it seems in danger of slipping their minds.

(fake paragraphing corrected) At the same time, the US has unilaterally decided to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to decide whether particular US trials violated the Vienna Protocol on Consular Relations.

The protocol requires signatories to let the International Court of Justice (ICJ) make the final decision when their citizens say they have been illegally denied the right to see a home-country diplomat when jailed abroad. The United States initially backed the measure as a means to protect its citizens abroad. It was also the first country to invoke the protocol before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, successfully suing Iran for the taking of 52 U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1979. But in recent years, other countries, with the support of U.S. opponents of capital punishment, successfully complained before the World Court that their citizens were sentenced to death by U.S. states without receiving access to diplomats from their home countries. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments March 28 in the case of a Mexican death row inmate in Texas who is asking the justices to enforce an ICJ decision in favor of Mexico last year. That case has attracted wide attention in Mexico and caused a diplomatic rift between the Bush administration and the government of Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Charles Lane, "US Quits Pact Used in Capital Cases," Washington Post (10 Mar. 2005) (fake paragraphing corrected).

This is more than food for thought; it points out the irony of George III's administration's lip service to establishing democracy in Iraq (among other places). Apparently, "democracy" doesn't mean the same thing to them as it means to me; a 19%–18% margin is not a "mandate" under any rational understanding of the term. Or of democracy.

Too, there's an important historical example to consider. However, the Balkans is definitely an area that the Bush Administration—in fact, both Bush Administrations—would prefer was on another planet. That's certainly the way George II and George III have acted about the region; and it certainly reflects their ignorance of the horrible effects of theocratic and ethnic "self-determination," which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to some aspects of the "state's rights" impetus coming from the far-right core in the Republican party. In turn, that ties back into the "sore loser"/"sour grapes" aspects of both of these news items. It's one thing to disagree with an international (or domestic, for that matter) consensus, or even groundswell. It's another thing entirely to try to pretend it doesn't exist, even as an issue for discussion.