The Trouble with Mary Robinson

At the time, this point posed no greater problem to Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac than it did to Mary Robinson. Robinson -- along with kindred spirits like Samantha Power or Susan Rice, current American ambassador to the UN -- might want to believe that the Kosovo War was somehow “legitimate” even without a UN mandate. But it was obviously illegal under the UN charter, which only recognizes self-defense and threats to international peace as legitimate grounds for states to undertake military action against other states. The charter makes no provision for states to attack other states in the name of defending human rights.

Moreover, Robinson not only criticized the Bush administration over the Iraq war. More fundamentally, while still UN human rights commissioner, Robinson already crossed swords with the Bush administration over its conduct of the war on Islamic terror organizations. Thus, in January 2002, she responded to the opening of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp by insisting that the U.S. must afford Geneva Convention protections not only to captured Taliban fighters, but even to al-Qaeda members.

After years of hectoring by European governments and EU-sponsored NGOs -- and following the Supreme Court’s 2006 Hamdan ruling -- this would, of course, also become U.S. government policy. But at the time, the idea of affording Geneva Convention protections to members of international terror networks was so wildly counter-intuitive that even the European Parliament rejected it.  Rather, the parliament found that the standards set out in the Geneva Conventions “must be revised to respond to the new situations created by the development of international terrorism.”

By contrast, over the next several months, Robinson used  her UN bully pulpit to insist that the Geneva Conventions were entirely adequate as is. She also accused the U.S. of responding to the 9/11 attacks in such a way as to undermine civil liberties not only at home, but around the world.

Indeed, Robinson denied outright that the 9/11 attacks constituted an act of war. Thus, for instance, in a June 15, 2002, editorial in the French daily Le Monde, she suggested that talk of a “war” on terrorism was merely an unfortunate choice of words. The fact she herself had called for captured al-Qaeda members to be treated precisely as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions appeared not to trouble her in this connection.

As if this was a choice between mutually exclusive alternatives, Robinson proposed that instead of talking of “war,” the 9/11 attacks ought rather to be qualified as “crimes against humanity.” The import of the would-be distinction appeared to be that combating the “perpetrators” could then be handled via ordinary civilian jurisdictions -- or, at any rate, in some sort of court and not on the battlefield. Thus, in a 2003 foreword to the academic volume Wars on Terrorism and Iraq, she asked:

[M]ay it not have been a strategic error to characterize the attacks of September 11 as requiring a “war on terrorism” rather than as “crimes against humanity” that required intense international military, police, and intelligence cooperation to bring the perpetrators to justice?

The rest of the essay makes clear that the question is merely rhetorical. Thus, for example, Robinson writes that the use of “the language of being ‘at war with terrorism’” had “nefarious” implications. And she suggested that “the terrorists” ought rather “to be branded as terrible criminals” -- as if she was entirely unfamiliar with the notion of a “war crime” or as if the designation “terrible criminals” would make al-Qaeda’s declared war on America magically disappear.

For good measure, Robinson also finds space to denounce “a pattern of actions by the administration of President George W. Bush since September 2001 that is at odds with core U.S. and international human rights principals.” Needless to say, the intelligence measures undertaken by the Bush administration to discover and disrupt terror networks come in for special criticism in this regard.

With the Obama administration busily rolling back the “war on terror” in both rhetoric and practice, it is not hard to appreciate why Robinson’s ideas on the subject would endear her to it. As fuzzy as Robinson’s logic may be, the practical upshot is clear: that the United States should return to the pre-9/11 “legal” footing for combating Islamic terror groups.

Among other things, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded for “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States.” Whether Mary Robinson’s agitation against the “war on terror” represents such a contribution is very open to doubt. The most obvious proof to the contrary is provided by the 9/11 attacks themselves.