The way to a civilized world

Posted: Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Corps of Engineers permit allowing Coeur Alaska's plan to dump mining waste into Lower Slate Lake. For the mining company, it's a happy ending to the four-year challenge by environmental groups. Whether or not one agrees with the ruling, it should be a cause to celebrate our system of justice.

But environmental groups don't think so. "The battle over Kensington just became a war to save the planet" wrote the Empire's editorial staff after the ruling. No one is drawing swords though. Within our borders, battles and wars are just metaphors for legal disagreements. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is seeking a civilized way to change the law, either by congressional legislation or an executive order from President Obama.

Civil behavior is at the root of all healthy civilizations. We turn to the civil courtroom rather than resort to violence to settle disputes. Listening is the next step away from hostility. The process purposefully leads toward understanding and respect for differing opinions.

True justice begins with the promise of equal rights for everyone, to bring our grievances into court, to be represented by legal counsel and to appeal a judge's ruling when we disagree. None of these rights guarantee that the judge or jury will rule in our favor. They don't even guarantee fairness. Indeed, it's not likely we'll ever see a system where political power and monetary wealth aren't unfair advantages.

A functional and honest justice system is a necessity for democracy to flourish. Without it those who write the nation's laws would lord over us like monarchs of the past. It wouldn't be a matter of mere courtroom advantage. Governments would forcefully oppress the mass of ordinary people whenever it suited their selfish agendas.

Our country was born in response to such injustices. It wasn't just taxation without representation; there wasn't equal access to justice for all people living under the British Empire. The American colonists were second class citizens. The alternative to suing the British government was civil disobedience that eventually turned into armed rebellion.

Severe injustices, real or perceived, will always generate resistance. Sooner or later protests become more contentious, people riot, and armed forces are called in to quell the insurrection. It may not be all out war, but violence is uncivilized behavior regardless of who fires the first shot.

In America, we're generally better than that. After 230 years it's still a work in progress, and some people are still struggling for equal rights. But we're doing much better than Iran, Honduras and other countries plagued by injustices and oppression.

Our responsibility doesn't end between our own shores, though. If we are to be a beacon of democracy and freedom for the world, then we should model the ideals of liberty and justice for all on the international stage.

The tragic truth is that America isn't interested in justice for the world in cases where we risk losing our economic or military advantages. We've turned our back on the International Court of Justice when it's ruled in opposition to our foreign policy.

In 1986, the world court sided with the Nicaraguan government in their grievance against us. It found we violated international law by supporting the Contras and mining Nicaragua's harbors. We refused to pay Nicaragua the reparations ordered by the court.

More recently in 2004, the world court unanimously declared that the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal. But since Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, our government is supporting their refusal to return those lands to the Palestinian people.

These aren't cases of foreign nations imposing their laws on our country. We helped craft them to create a more peaceful world. Just as we expect SEACC to accept the Supreme Court decision on Kensington, our government should respect the findings of the International Court of Justice.

If America can pick and choose which international laws apply to us, we're mistakenly modeling uncivilized behavior. Violence becomes the answer to oppress and to fight oppression. If we want a more civilized world, it will begin with liberty and justice for all.

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