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World at the Crossroads

A case for the rule of law

Excerpts from “World at the Crossroads: Law or War?”, a speech by University Professor John Polanyi on receiving the International Acharya Sushil Kumar Peace Award, January 2003:

“Law” for all its human imperfections, celebrates the rule of reason, as evidenced in the formal arguments and rebuttals in court. ‘War’ is the abnegation of reason in favour of power. The former acknowledges the humanity of the other party, the latter treats the other as a thing to be hacked into shape…

We shall never have peace so long as large segments of humankind are voiceless. Until now, much of the world’s population, being poor, has been at the mercy of the rich. They remain poor. The richest 25 million Americans have an income equal to that of almost two billion of the world’s poorest. For the half of the world’s population that lives on less than $2 per day, it would be better to be a European cow that receives $2.20 daily in subsidies from the European Community taxpayer.

That these numbers are becoming known is the harbinger of change. The change will come, however, from the clamour of the poor. They must be heard in international forums, made effective through international agreements – in effect, through international law…

Does the international community have the right to intervene in Iraq? Surely it does. By modern standards, Saddam Hussein has long since forfeited his right to rule. The principle that Lester Pearson enunciated decades ago, that the sovereignty of the individual supersedes the sovereignty of the state, applies. This is why we recognized an international responsibility to the suffering people of Somalia (ineptly), Rwanda (too late), Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Angola, Sri Lanka and so forth. We do not abandon them all, on the specious grounds that we cannot help them all. We have an obligation to do all we can.

But we must be cautious not to intervene recklessly, leaving behind a worse situation than we found. Additionally, we should not intervene without a convincing international consensus, or we lack the necessary moral authority.

We can claim that our reasons for intervening are cogent, but if we are unable to make the case to others, they are not. If we ‘pre-empt’ on feeble grounds, we invite others, on equally specious grounds, to pre-empt that pre-emption. We return to the jungle of unilateral acts.

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  1. One Response to “ World at the Crossroads ”

  2. Abe Gruber says:

    I question some of Professor John Polanyi’s assumptions on peace. “Law” does not necessarily celebrate the rule of reason. Religious law and tribal law are often absolute and based upon tradition, not formal arguments in court.

    As for claiming that war is the abnegation of reason in favour of power, does Polanyi seriously expect that one could reason with such a monster as Saddam Hussein and stay alive? Brutal dictators don’t pursue truth through reason. They chiefly want power and use violence to get it or keep it. Professor Polanyi’s view that a convincing international consensus is necessary to intervene also needs qualification. It just doesn’t make much sense to say that Saddam has long since forfeited his right to rule, yet fail to act upon that fact.

    Abe Gruber (BA 1955 UC)
    Emeritus in anthropology at Palomar College, California