U.S. flouts international law, critics say

August 02, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is getting deeper into trouble -- in Congress, in federal courts, in international tribunals and with human rights advocates -- over an on-again, off-again view of its duty to obey and promote international law.

A government that fought a war last year to enforce the rule of international law against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and that was still lecturing the "Baghdad bully" on that score a week ago is now being forced to defend its own image as global citizen.

In an increasing number of forums, the administration is under challenge for its handling of Haitian refugees, its policy on kidnapping wanted fugitives in their own countries, its view of its obligations toward a celebrated Israeli war crimes case and its use of a military invasion to seize Panama's dictator, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, so that he could be tried here for drug trafficking.

"This administration seems to be particularly high-handed in its evasion of the rules" of international law, said Michael Abbell, a Washington lawyer who practices criminal law in international cases and was a longtime Justice Department official in that field.

Saying that there have been an increasing number of incidents of the U.S. government's bending or breaking the norms of global law, Mr. Abbell said that "in the law enforcement area, particularly with its war on drugs, this administration has been almost unique in the degree to which it does this sort of thing."

Reed Brody, a global civil rights activist who heads the International Human Rights Law Group here, said, "This administration is a fan of international law when that supports what it's trying to do, but when its actions would be barred, it thumbs its nose at international law."

Both Mr. Abbell and Mr. Brody are working to thwart the administration on one particular kind of global tactic: entering another country, without its permission, to kidnap a citizen there who is wanted for crimes in the United States -- a policy that has stirred up an ocean-spanning furor since the Supreme Court ruled June 15 that such kidnappings do not break U.S. law.

Mr. Abbell is trying to get Congress to toughen and then pass a newly introduced bill, offered by Rep. Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif., to take away the government's power to engage in global kidnapping of fugitives. Mr. Brody is trying to help persuade a group of jurists from the Organization of American States to condemn that method of enforcing U.S. laws.

But private individuals are not the only ones rising in criticism.

Central and South American governments, in particular, are fuming over the kidnapping policy, and a meeting next week in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, of the Organization of American States' Permanent Council is expected to get a formal opinion condemning global kidnapping as illegal under world law.

That opinion is now being readied by the 11-member Inter-American Juridical Committee at the request of the Organization of American States, a request that the U.S. government opposed.

In recent weeks, three judges on two separate federal courts in New York have denounced the U.S. government's new policy of seizing Haitian refugees as they flee their country by boat and returning them to shore without any review of their potential claims to U.S. political asylum.

U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. of Brooklyn said in June that the U.S. government had been "particularly hypocritical" for condemning other countries for sending back refugees it did not want, while doing the same thing toward Haitians.

Noting that the U.S. government since 1968 has been a signer of a global treaty that bars the return of refugees to homelands if they could face persecution there, Judge Johnson said it was "unconscionable" for the United States now to be claiming it is not bound by that treaty.

Just last week, two judges of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City struck down the seizure-and-return policy toward the Haitians. It went on to condemn the Bush administration for supposedly promising the Supreme Court last winter that it would do no such thing, only to switch after the court had turned aside an earlier refugee challenge.

The Bush administration has drawn added criticism, in both the Haitian refugee and the global kidnapping incidents, because it has cast aside earlier formal rulings within the government against such policies.

The week after next, the administration is also expected to hear sharp new criticism of its view of global obligations when the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati holds a new hearing on the celebrated John Demjanjuk case.

Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker who was living in a Cleveland suburb, was extradited to Israel, where he was convicted of being the sadistic "Ivan the Terrible" who helped kill hundreds of thousands of Jews at a Nazi death camp in Poland in World War II.

The Circuit Court has questioned the Bush administration's view that Demjanjuk was properly sent to Israel and is pondering reopening the case -- possibly to try to undo the extradition.

Later this year, when Panamanian dictator Noriega's lawyers appeal his conviction on eight drug crime charges, they will be attempting to persuade higher courts that he was a "prisoner of war" and that his seizure during an invasion of the country he headed was a clear breach of international law.

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