Reading between the lines
A modern crusader
Jon Holbrook finds that rights are on the new agenda in international law, but sovereignty is not one of them
- Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle For Global Justice, Geoffrey Robertson, Penguin, £20 hbk
This book 'is the first work to weave history, philosophy and international law into a timely and dramatic account of how the human rights idea will come to dominate world politics in the twenty-first century'. It is a big task, but then Geoffrey Robertson QC is a big wig, having appeared as counsel in many landmark human rights cases and written extensively about civil rights law, including his celebrated book Freedom, the Individual and the Law.
As Robertson surveys the development of human rights law since 1945 he is critical of the gap between state rhetoric and practice. He argues that this gap has existed because governments have been motivated by self-interest. Robertson enthuses about the Nuremberg trials of 1945/6 because they established and defined the modern-day notion of crimes against humanity as serious and systematic inhuman acts against a civilian population committed as part of a state campaign.
Yet Robertson also says that 'Nuremberg was a showtrial' which had more to do with burying Nazism than with promoting human rights. Consequently, when the world became more concerned with the Cold War, the recent past was forgotten and Nazi scientists and businessmen were utilised in the fight against communism.
It was to be another 48 years before anybody else was tried in an international criminal court. In the decades between, the human rights conventions that had been ushered in after the Second World War were the subject of numerous conferences and lofty pronouncements but had little practical effect. Nevertheless, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948), the Genocide Convention (1948) and the Geneva Conventions (1949) were to remain on the international statute book waiting to be dusted off.
But self-interest among states conspired to ensure that despite the developing law on torture, torturers did not suffer. 'Baby Doc' Duvalier (Haiti 1971-1986) and President Mobutu (Congo 1965-1997) continued to lord it over their long-suffering citizens with considerable Western support. After MI6 had helped Idi Amin to power in Uganda in 1971, the murder of 75 000 followed. In Chile the CIA-sponsored coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973 was followed by the 'disappearance' of up to 4000. Pragmatism triumphed over Ó Î principle because, as President Roosevelt said of the Nicaraguan dictator General Somoza, 'He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch'.
In response to government hypocrisy, says Robertson, the ranks of the human rights movement swelled. Amnesty International grew from 'a few English do-gooders in 1961' to an international organisation with more than one million members. Similar work is done by more than 900 other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). On the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in December 1998, 12 million people from around the world signed a petition to the UN to demand that its promises be made good.
As the human rights movement has grown so the demand for transnational action has increased. Robertson argues that state sovereignty ('familiar bogey' and 'shibboleth') is holding back the practical implementation of human rights laws. For him, the 'movement for global justice has been a struggle against sovereignty'.
Wednesday 24 March 1999 was a momentous day for Robertson. The House of Lords gave judgement in the Pinochet case, establishing that no form of legal immunity could attach to allegations of torture, on the same day that NATO started to bomb the sovereign state of Serbia under the pretext of preventing atrocities in Kosovo. Robertson's dislike of sovereignty has hit a resonant frequency with Western governments. Much to his satisfaction, UN article 2(7), which prohibits intervention in domestic matters, is now honoured more in the breach than the observance.
But what of Robertson's argument that states have always been motivated by self-interest? In the post-Cold War era, he says, things are different: 'the dominant motive in world affairs is the quest - almost the thirst - for justice.' From now on, 'human rights discourse will be less pious'. Robertson has not forgotten his politics. It is just that, with the end of the Cold War, he believes that Western states no longer have any self-interested economic or strategic reason to intervene around the world. Thus they can do no wrong.
Robertson's book is thorough and thought-provoking. It is refreshing to read a book written by a lawyer who is aware that laws are conceived and implemented in a political world. But has Robertson fully understood the post-Cold War world?
Governments today may not be motivated by the same forces that gripped them during the Cold War. Today they face new difficulties, such as establishing their moral authority and connecting with their people. What better way to overcome these difficulties than to be seen hunting down and brandishing others (often former allies) as fascists and torturers, or by intervening in civil wars on the side of 'angels' against 'war criminals'? The consequences for those on the receiving end of these interventions, however, are rather less beneficial, as the ongoing disaster in the Balkans illustrates. Given the forces that are currently gripping Western governments, we would surely have a better chance of upholding human rights by standing up for a 'shibboleth' such as sovereignty.
Jon Holbrook is a barrister.
When Adam delved and Eve span
- The Making Of Intelligence, Ken Richardson, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £14.99 hbk
The Making Of Intelligence draws on the advances made this century in a variety of disciplines - from psychology and neuroscience to evolutionary theory and anthropology - to shed light on how intelligence emerges.
Educational psychologist and neuroscientist Ken Richardson criticises theories that reduce intelligence to simple components and that fail to recognise the unique character of human cognition. He demonstrates the methodological and theoretical flaws in research which claims that individual differences in IQ are due to individual differences in genes. He also takes a critical look at the new evolutionary view of psychology, which presents intelligence as a common principle running through all animal life gradually becoming amplified in humans - the idea of 'learning within biological constraints', applied equally to humans and other animals.
Considering the wealth of knowledge gained about our evolutionary history, the workings of our brain (through the use of electroencephalogams (EEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans), and the nature of child development, the lack of sophistication in much that has been written about intelligence in recent years is breathtaking.
Take evolutionary psychology. Its advocates argue that our cognitive abilities are mere adaptations that evolved in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our intelligence, we are told, is a system of relatively fixed mental modules, each adaptive to different problem domains experienced in the course of evolution, and handed on through our genes to the next generation. According to evolutionary psychologists, human intellectual abilities were designed to solve specific problems of an earlier age - therefore, the cognitive and knowledge structures of today are limited. In short, they proclaim, human intelligence is more adapted to the Bronze Age than the modem age. To me, the failure of these theorists to recognise the flexibility and ingenuity of the human mind says more about them than about their subjects, revealing distinct limits to their insight and imagination.
Or take the computational or connectionist models of intelligence. Here the brain is viewed as a mere processor of information. The networks described may well mimic some aspects of human cognition, but there is far more to human intelligence than information processing.
Richardson recognises the strength of the contribution of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky to solving the puzzle of what makes intelligence. In order to understand the highly complex forms of human intelligence, we need to go beyond the individual organism to the social and historical forms of human existence. As Richardson points out, the mystery of intelligence is solved by the 'realisation that human social life is a whole new system of regulations that takes over the cognitive and other regulations already evolved, vastly transforming, shaping and extending them'. The upshot is that rather than human intelligence being merely an adaptation, subject to Darwinian laws, human beings seek to adapt the world to themselves and their needs: 'Humans don't have the epigenetic regulations that result in wings and flying, but we fly better than any bird, thanks to our deeper understanding of physical forces.'
A renaissance cannibal
- Hannibal, Thomas Harris, Heinemann, £16.99 hbk
In between the Scooby Doo-style sound effects, Thomas Harris has something to say. If the serial killer's morality was almost ambivalent in Silence of the Lambs, he is practically a hero in the sequel. (Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins have taken the same roles again for the film of Hannibal, so audiences will be able to see this development played out on the big screen before long.)
Hannibal was always a better detective than Clarice Starling, the FBI agent who sought his help in Lambs, and now he is threatening to become a better person, too. Starling's success in solving the earlier case has made her an enemy at the Justice Department, and seven years on we find her in something of a rut. A questionable shooting on a drugs operation threatens her career, and she is all too willing to be drawn back into the narcotic complexities of Lecter's mind palace. (Be warned: this stuff is infectious.) She is led there by one Mason Verger, a rare survivor of Hannibal's voracious palate who is now bent on revenge. Horribly mutilated and dependent on a respirator, he uses the worldwide web to organise a gruesome end for Lecter. Unwittingly, Starling becomes his bait.
Verger's twisted pursuit of vengeance provides a useful counterpoint to Lecter's psychopathic virtue. From his home in Florence, the Renaissance cannibal sets off on a private crusade. The wicked and the ignorant are literally consumed by this godlike psychiatrist, in scenes far more graphic than those in Harris' previous books. (The film will be a real treat.) Hannibal certainly has issues, but the overall effect of the novel is to question the nature of morality in ways that are not easily answerable. Perhaps most pressing of all: do a few good points justify so much dodgy prose and such a bobbins ending?
Read On Read On Read On Read On
Presenter of the Channel 4 series this is Modern Art, Matthew Collings favours a quizzical style which stands in marked contrast to the profundities on art issued by Kenneth Clark and Waldemar Januszczak. In both his books, as well as on TV, Collings addresses the puzzles presented by modern art without ever seriously trying to answer them. Which style is best? The quizzical or the proselytising? Does it matter? Or doesn't it? Hmm...interesting. And so he goes on, trekking from one modern art icon to another; from the south of France to the Pacific seaboard; from Goya's bleak vistas in the Prado to an old aircraft hangar full of cool minimalist objects in Marfu, Texas.
In Blimey! Collings establishes his family background among London's Bohemia in the 1950s and 60s, and his own education among the conceptual artists surrounding the Art and Language group in the 1970s and 80s. He was admirably placed to latch on to the Young British Artist (yBa) phenomenon that mushroomed in London in the 1990s and which brought the likes of Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread to international attention. Although an artist in his own right, it is in his role as a commentator on the contemporary art scene that Collings is best known.
A constant theme haunts Collings' reviews of art - is he selling out to the forces of commerce and reaction? The radical artists that he used to mix with viewed art as a revolutionary instrument to liberate the oppressed, and it is apparent that he feels guilty about the role Ó Î of filthy lucre in art and in his current lifestyle. Thanks to his Art and Language background, this antipathy to commercialism and the formal traditions of art quality were confused. He loves modern art, yet is defensive about the entrepreneurial skills exhibited by the yBa artists, and cannot resist making ironic comments about the merchandising activities of modern art galleries. But just as life has no direct relevance for art, neither has money for style. Despite the bravado of those artists who claim that art has no formal meaning, Collings has come to realise that it still needs conventions. After all, how can modern art shock us if there is no concept of beauty to be transgressed?
Collings' quizzical mannerisms express concept art's smudging of the difference between objects and words until his commentary becomes a work of art in itself. Like an art-world version of faux-naive TV interviewers Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield, Collings seems ignorant, yet his remarks and asides on modern art are frequently more intelligent than those of pontificating traditional art critics. Like the romantic spirit that 'would alone work evil, yet engenders good', modern art is intent on dumbing itself down because that can often produce the better result. So it doesn't matter if culture is being dumbed down. Or does it? Hmm...interesting.
Read On Read On Read On Read On
- An intelligent person's guide to modern culture, Roger Scruton, Duckworth, £14.95 hbk
'It is my view that the high culture of our civilisation contains knowledge which is far more significant than anything that can be absorbed from the channels of popular communication', argues right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton. 'This is a hard belief to justify, and a harder one to live with; indeed, it has nothing to recommend it apart from its essential truth.'
Scruton's archaic snobbery and reactionary opinions have not served him well in many areas. But when discussing culture he is in his element. Rather than reducing questions of art to the banality of contemporary circumstances, he recognises in them a religious element: the 'myth' that 'sets before us in allegorical form a truth about our condition, but a truth which is veiled in mystery'. Dividing knowledge into knowledge that (science), knowledge how (skill) and knowledge what (virtue), he places high culture firmly in the last category.
Scruton's observations concerning the tribal and symbolic aspects of culture can smack of cod-anthropology, particularly in the chapter 'Yoofanasia'. In this, unintentionally the most hilarious part of the book, the good professor wrestles with Nirvana and Oasis lyrics in an attempt to grasp the pop phenomenon. But even here, if one is willing to look beyond his awkward manner, Scruton is quite astute with regard to the frustrated, inarticulate and infantile character of much pop music.
Read On Read On Read On Read On
- Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling, Bloomsbury, £10.99 pbk
Harry Potter is an unhappy, oppressed orphan. At the age of 10 he discovers he is a wizard. Not any old wizard, but a special wizard. As an infant, on the death of his parents Harry manages to defeat the Dark Lord Voldemort. These facts make Harry something of a celebrity in the wizard world, as he goes off to Hogwarts, the wizards' and witches' boarding school.
Azkaban is the third in the series and half my family and best friends are reading Potter and eagerly swapping the books. On the face of it, it is a mystery why the Potter books have been such a success. They sound so twee and jolly-hockey-sticks. Indeed, for many years magic children books were considered reactionary and realism was the thing.
Harry is special and all kids identify with that. Rowling also provides a total aesthetic vision of the world of Harry Potter. But what is so remarkable and addictive is its resemblance to the real world of class, envy, snobbery and exploitation. Rowling does not shy away from life's nastiness. Harry's best friend Ron is poor and laughed at. Harry's worst enemy is Malfoy who is rich and therefore powerful. Just like the real world.
Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999