Sat, Feb 28, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Human rights trump sovereignty

By Ming Chu-cheng 明居正

Recently the Taiwan High Court, on grounds of "mistaken jurisdiction," rejected a lawsuit filed by Taiwanese practitioners of Falun Gong against former Chinese Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and others. This has led to a controversy over whether Taiwan has the power to put another country's officials on trial.

What is most important in this is the dispute over which principle should take precedence -- human rights or national sovereignty.

From ancient times, nations have always been viewed as the primary unit in international politics. National sovereignty has also been viewed as sacrosanct since the 17th century.

However, the sanctity of national sovereignty has declined markedly since the end of World War II.

This change in attitude has followed progress in globalization.

The increase in the number of international treaties, the ascendence of international organizations and the rising role of multinational corporations have all been important factors in this development.

Most notable has been the emergence of trials that constrain the acts of war by nations. In the several thousand years of human history, war was always viewed as the supreme method taken by nations to realize their will.

Wars therefore had a quality of justice.

Whatever methods that were adopted by nations in war -- be they for the sake of victory or self-defense -- were basically considered reasonable.

After World War II, however, two international courts were set up.

The Nuremberg and Tokyo courts launched prosecutions targeting acts of war by Germany and Japan, as well as individual politicians and high-level military officers from the two countries who engaged in excessively cruel acts of war.

This opened a precedent for war crimes trials.

Over almost half a century, in view of the fact that civil wars in some nations have been excessively brutal, the international community has pushed further ahead with the concept and practical handling of war crimes.

For example, between 1992 and 1995, civil war broke out in Bosnia, which had broken away from former Yugoslavia.

The three feuding groups -- Muslims, Serbs and Croats -- adopted extremely cruel methods to slaughter each other and engage in ethnic cleansing.

The international community was shocked and sent troops to intervene and stop the civil war. A special tribunal for international war crimes was also set up under the UN. After more than 10 years of work, the leaders of the three groups or military officers responsible for the brutalities -- except for a few still on the run -- have been arrested and put on trial on charges of genocide, massacre and rape. In addition to generals from the three groups, those on trial also include former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic.

In the late 1990s, in neighboring Serbia, president Slobodan Milosevic's advocacy of nationalism led to riots by ethnic Albanians living in the Kosovo area. Milosevic sent troops to suppress them.

At the same time, he adopted a policy of ethnic cleansing that resulted in massive casualties and led to armed intervention by NATO.

Milosevic eventually fell from power and was sent to the International Criminal Court in the Hague for a trial that continues to this day.

To cite another case, Augusto Pinochet, the strongman who exercised military dictatorship in Chile from the early 1970s to 1990, was ruled guilty by a Spanish court after he fell from power on account of his excessively brutal rule, which saw at least 3,000 of Pinochet's political opponents abducted, arrested or even assassinated.

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