Jewish World Review June 18, 2002 / 8 Tamuz, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Tread on us: How the press fooled itself | Remember all the nice, enlightened pundits who were horrified when George W. Bush unsigned the treaty setting up an international criminal court?

They were appalled: This bumbling new president, that Texas clod, clearly lacked the international sophistication of his predecessor. (Bill Clinton had signed the treaty as he left the Oval Office, leaving another little legacy behind -- like a ticking bomb.)

Didn't W understand that Americans had nothing to fear from this international tribunal, which would only go after war criminals, not innocent Americans? "Global Court Won't Have Power Over the U.S.," said one of the assuring headlines.

These primitives, these, these laymen now in charge of American foreign policy just didn't understand. Their decision to nix the treaty "was an empty gesture that will further estrange Washington from its allies," to quote a spokesman for Human Rights Watch. That line was duly echoed by all our contemporary versions of Scotty Reston and Walter Lippmann, who never met a treaty they didn't like.

Well, tell it to The Washington Post. We hope all these sophisticates noticed a little news item out of The Hague last Wednesday. It wound up back on Page 14A of my paper under the head: "U.N. judges say journalist must testify in Balkan case."

Global Court Won't Have Power Over U.S.? The word clearly hadn't got to this global court. "A U.N. war crimes tribunal," the AP story began, "has rejected as unfounded the refusal by an American journalist to testify about an interview with a suspected war criminal that was published in The Washington Post newspaper."

The reason why The Post's Jonathan Randal declined the invitation/command to testify is obvious to any newspaperman. Once reporters can be turned into material witnesses, those they might testify against will have every reason to see that they won't be available, not in this world.

Especially unflinching reporters like Jonathan Randal, whose dispatches from the sordid little war in the Balkans opened the world's eyes to the atrocities being committed there. He understands what it is to bear witness, but in a higher court than the U.N.'s -- the decent opinion of mankind.

If this U.N.'s little inquisition has its way, to quote The Post's managing editor, Steve Coll, war criminals will come to see journalists "as instruments of some faraway court or power and deal with them as such." Which is a nice way of putting it. Too nice. This isn't so much a subpoena for one reporter as a death warrant for those who will come after. The first rule of war criminals, like the other kind, is: Leave No Witnesses.

The U.N.'s three panelists, sitting safely in the Netherlands, see nothing to fear. "There is absolutely no indication at all that if forced to testify in this case, Randal could possibly be exposed to physical harm or any other kind of harm." Mr. Randal can always tell that to his captors should he cover another war zone.

As for the chilling effect this summons might have on future Jonathan Randals, the kind of reporters who are the world's eyes and ears and conscience, these international inquisitors felt no need to go into that little detail. That would be thinking ahead.

It isn't this one decision in this one case that troubles so much as the whole, misbegotten idea of handing Americans over to jurists who don't recognize the Bill of Rights. Their attitude toward it might best be described as airy dismissal.

These magistrates didn't just dismiss Jonathan Randal's concerns about the safety of reporters. "What is worse," they fumed, "is that he expects this trial chamber to assert the journalistic qualified privilege" that is common American practice. First Amendment, Shmirst Amendment.

According to this decision, American ideas about freedom of the press are irrelevant, indeed insolent. George W. Bush's judgment never looked so good.

These international inquisitors represent a clear and increasingly present danger not just to intrepid reporters but to American freedoms in general, only beginning with freedom of the press. Soon enough -- can anyone doubt it? -- these Torquemadas will be waving aside the American right to a fair trial, too, like the parochial holdover it is.

How long before American troops -- who have proven the last, best defense against war criminals in this age -- are also summoned to appear before international courts, not just as witnesses but as defendants? Judging by the U.N.'s record in the Mideast, it is no great feat of imagination to picture one of its people's courts siding with the world's killers and against those defending themselves.

There's already a move on to indict Israel's Ariel Sharon before an international tribunal, which was as predictable as another Zionism-Is-Racism resolution out of the U.N. Can anyone imagine the UN's "judges" summoning a real terrorist like Yasser Arafat to the bar of justice?

Those inverted commas are around "judges" because this court is modeled after the Continental model, in which judges act not as impartial arbiters but as investigators, as not-so-grand inquisitors, almost as prosecutors.

To anyone with some memory of European history this past century, there is something familiar about this court, with its aspirations to a global reach, its determination to erect a new order that will make mere national traditions -- and quaint individual rights -- obsolete. Of course. It's happened before, circa 1933-45. Only then it was called Gleichschaltung. The more the European mentality changes, the more familiar it seems.

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