New Internationalist Issue 275
The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist
In the dock
On the eve of the historic first proceedings in the World People's Court,
the Chief Prosecutor ruminates on the task ahead.
It's dark now in the building. Nobody left but me. The storm that's been slapping the mountains about for hours is now whipping over the waters of Lake Geneva to give the glass beside me a hard time. I'm safe. It can't touch me. But what about the storm I'll walk into tomorrow? After all my comfortable years of cynicism, can I really make a fist of this new role as Crusading Knight representing the Downtrodden Masses of the World?
I thought I'd left all that crusading business behind a long, long time ago in that other world called the Sixties. All of us wanted to change the world, we just chose different ways to do it. I had a friend who blew up a power plant in protest at the military-industrial complex during the Vietnam War. Others wound up with their great earthmoving novel degraded into oneliners and soundbites for ad agencies. And still others just got married and started pouring all their dreams into their kids.
Me? I went to law school, on fire with the notion that the law was all about justice. Ten years later there I was like any other lawyer, busily prosecuting the weak and the disenfranchised - crucifying them for getting involved in violence or theft in ghetto areas where they more or less had no option. Or, worse still, putting people in prison because they couldn't pay the fines imposed on them for some trivial offence - punishment for being poor.
Call me a coward or a sell-out but my reaction wasn't to put my legal skills at the service of those same poor people, working in some community law centre with wet rot in the walls and warm compassion in the coffee cups. Instead I looked after myself: I went for prestige cases with prestige fees attached and sneered at the system on the quiet as if that put me above it. I built myself a name as well as a fancy house.
Maybe membership of the country-club set was what did it for me in the end - all those fine, upstanding citizens with the gall to assume I shared their smug, bigoted ideas about crime and punishment, their enthusiasm for cleaning up the streets with a flamethrower. They'd rant on about the pushers and the pimps, the communists and the common riff-raff who were getting away with murder. And in the next breath they'd tell you about their latest scam for tax evasion without even the decency to wonder whether broadcasting it to a lawyer might not be a very smart move. The criminals we most need to catch don't even get called criminals.
There had to be something better. I used my connections and got myself a legal job inside the UN. I wish I could say that cured me of my cynicism. But it did the trick for me in one sense - without that experience there's no way I would have got this job as the first Chief Prosecutor at the World People's Court.
And this is my last chance for redemption: deep down I know that I'm desperate for this to work out, to prove myself wrong and be reunited with all those old ideals. I look at the team that's working for me on these first five cases and their faith that we can bring this off is almost painful to me. Painful because they remind me of my younger, better self but also because I know there's next to no chance that these prosecutions will succeed. The World People's Court was a crazy bolt from the blue, an idea about a hundred years ahead of its time which was pushed through by the Scandinavians while the major powers were looking the other way. But once it was in place there was no way the big wheels were going to let it threaten their own global country club.
I know that when my bosses ordered me not to go for the world's worst dictators - General Abacha of Nigeria, for example, or General Suharto of Indonesia - they had a not-so-hidden agenda. They say that those people are being dealt with by 'other channels'. But the real reason is that the crimes of the Mobutus of this world are so nakedly evident that we'd have had no trouble making our case stick.
Instead they gave me free rein to come up with prosecutions against a second tier of individuals who are less accepted as criminals by the world community. They were more or less inviting me to pluck out people like Jacques Chirac or the Pope, people so powerful that I have no chance of bringing them down. I'll tilt at windmills and the Court will lose its credibility. They know I know this. But we also both know that the Court already has a life of its own - its own brief leaves it no option but to take on the powerful and to hang itself by its own rope in the process.
Or is this just the old cynicism creaking in my bones again?
The storm's given out. I wish this was like some cheap novel where the change in the weather reflects the protagonist's change in mood. But I've had enough long dark nights of the soul to know I'm not going to get off so easy tonight.
Beyond the city I can see where the moon has cast a spotlight on the surface of the Lake. Tomorrow I'll be out in the spotlight. I've prepared all my charges, gathered all my witnesses, written all my notes for the prosecution team. Now I just have to do the world - and myself - justice.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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