VIEW: Contrasts of justice —Saleem H Ali
Since comparisons are so often made between countries in the region to justify favouring one country over another, it is worth mentioning that Israel has not necessarily abided by all legal standards itself, despite the celebration of the Bil’in ruling
Paradoxical protests of victory were recently held on both sides of the famed barrier fence that Israel has been constructing to prevent suicide bombings. On September 6, the head of the village council of a Palestinian village called Bil’in won a ruling at the Israeli Supreme Court that declared that the route taken by the barrier had illegally appropriated land from the village. Palestinians had accused Israel of seizing around 200 hectares of land in the village to make way for the barrier, and charged that thousands of olive trees had been uprooted for construction. This week’s ruling provides residents with the opportunity to reclaim at least 100 hectares of confiscated land.
Celebration among the villagers of Bil’in was understandable, but even the losing side in this case was celebrating before cameras and applauding the objectivity of the courts. The Israeli government spokesman remarked to the BBC that the decision made him proud to live in a country where “the rule of law prevailed over politics”. Soon, comparisons were being made with Muslim states where such independent decisions would never have happened. Israel was once again heralded by Washington policy-makers as the bastion of good governance as compared to its neighbours.
Clearly, many neighbouring states have a long way to go before they meet international standards of human rights, particularly with regard to women. However, the independence of the judiciary is also significant in other Muslim states that are often maligned in such contexts. Consider the example of our own Pakistan, which shares with Israel the characteristic of being the only other country in the world that was formed exclusively on the basis of religion.
Two weeks earlier, the Supreme Court in Pakistan ruled against the government of General Pervez Musharraf by allowing the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to return from exile in Saudi Arabia. The court also ruled that extrajudicial arrests of street suspects on grounds of terrorism need to be justified by the government. Of course, these decisions came after the reinstatement of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, following months of street protests by lawyers. However, this strong stance of the courts, as well as the Pakistani civil society, was not given the credit it deserved in terms of positive governance. Instead of applauding the independence of the judiciary in Pakistan, think-tanks in London and Washington continued their complaints of “poor governance,” and “state failure”.
Since comparisons are so often made between countries in the region to justify favouring one country over another, it is worth mentioning that Israel has not necessarily abided by all legal standards itself, despite the celebration of the Bil’in ruling. In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a non-binding ruling that parts of the 650-kilometre (410-mile) barrier along the West Bank are illegal and should be torn down. However, among many American political circles these days, the ICJ and the United Nations are quickly dismissed as “politicised institutions”. Such selective celebration of judicial high ground only furthers cynicism about the West in most Muslim countries.
As the next US presidential election approaches, the world should consider which politicians are willing to go beyond such trivialisation of international institutions. The only candidate in the race who currently shows promise to be balanced in these matters is Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and currently Governor of the state of New Mexico. He understands global politics better than any of the other front runners like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Rudolph Giuliani. Understanding and contrasting measures of justice are essential if we are to move towards resolving global conflicts.
While recognising these asymmetries of power and double-standards, it is essential that Muslim countries applaud the Israeli court’s decision and perhaps use this as a positive means of self-criticism. The Saudis in particular should reconsider their recent snub of the Pakistani courts by suggesting that their ad hoc exile deal with Musharraf regarding Sharif should override the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision. This intervention led Musharraf to forcibly deport Sharif when he arrived in Islamabad earlier this week. This is not to exonerate Sharif, or for that matter, Benazir Bhutto: they should face all court cases in which they have been charged.
Despite these cautionary comments about reading too much into the Bil’in decision, we should certainly use this as an opportunity for further peace-building. Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s visit to the village, to gain some credit for what was basically a grassroots action, is nevertheless heartening. His comments were the most explicit to date about the prospect for peaceful co-existence between Israel and Palestine. Fayyad stated unequivocally that it was a sign that both Israelis and Palestinians could live “side by side” in peace. The work of Michael Sfard, the Israeli lawyer for Bil’in municipality, also shows the potential for working across physical and political barriers on such matters.
At the end of the day, Israelis, Palestinians and Pakistanis alike seek justice just as much as any other human community. The perception of how justice is configured and dispensed on either side of an issue is just as significant for conflict resolution as the substance of the cases themselves. It is high time that the West and the East become more discerning about giving credit and censure where it is due, regardless of our own political proclivity.
Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment. He is the editor of the new book Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org