It’s half past nine in the morning and we are listening to a lecture on the universal jurisdiction of states to prosecute certain human rights violations. We are told that the use of torture is so abhorrent to natural justice that in article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) the wording: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” stands without qualification. There are no provisos. Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), also without qualification repeats the UDHR verbatim, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000) does the same in article 4 with the addition of article 19 § 2 which, owing to the absolute nature of the ban on torture, forbids the removal, expulsion, or extradition of a person “to a State where there is a serious risk that he or she would be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Our lecturer then continues to guide the class on a virtual tour of real life examples where states have exercised or attempted to exercise their right to universal jurisdiction to bring human rights violators to justice. Naturally the tale of the former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet was a feature of the tour. On his visit to London the government of Spain charged him with the crime of torture and issued the United Kingdom with an extradition order. He was granted leave to stay in Britain on some ‘technicality’ that was eventually overturned in the House of Lords. Having run out of other options, and no doubt hoping to avoid being implicated in his crimes, the British government ultimately pardoned him, and he was free from prosecution.

So much for the utter repugnance of torture, I thought. My question as to why the US president Barrack Obama was free to come and go from Ireland was shot down on the grounds that he was “never charged.” This is true. Obama has never been charged with human rights violations even though he, as commander in chief of the US armed forces, has legal and moral responsibility over the now infamous torture sites at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Neither were George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair ever charged with committing acts of torture or other human rights violations. Come to think of it Margaret Thatcher was never charged for committing acts of torture. Surely I’m not alone in seeing a pattern here?

It’s not the fault of the lecturer that I’m thinking that this is all a load of bullshit. He’s a legal professional with experience of human rights practice in the United Nations and an Irish academic. The man has to eat after all, and I have no doubts he does what he does in all sincerity and with a clean conscience, but nothing of this takes away from my own sense of repugnance at a system wherein the mighty are positioned above and beyond the reach of “universal law.” In no way would I suggest that Pinochet and others like him (who have been charged and in some cases convicted) are guiltless. On the contrary, it is only right that they face judgement. Yet a ‘justice system’ that differentiates between the despots of tin-pot republics, who will always be limited in the harm they can do, and the heads of states of the most powerful nations, who have a global scope in the damage they can inflict, is nothing short of a fraud.

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