Monday, September 5, 2016

Personal Mysteries Drive Forward a Story of International Law (Books - East West Street by Philippe Sands)

Once known as "little Paris of the Ukraine," the city of Lemberg (also called Lwów, Lvov and Lviv, depending on the moment in history and who was doing the calling) figures prominently in Philippe Sands's East West Street (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).  Invited to deliver a lecture on international law at the University, he uses the opportunity to do a little research into family history, as it is the place of his maternal grandfather's birth.  In seeking answers to questions about his grandparents' immigration to Paris in 1938, he learns that three other men crossed paths in the city of Lviv. One was Hans Frank, a lawyer appointed by the Nazi's to run the Jewish ghetto, where he condemned its entire Jewish population to death.  The other two men both figured prominently in Sands's own profession, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, Both studied law in Lviv, they event studied under the same professor, and both invented key mechanisms of international law used today.

Lauterpacht conceived of crimes against humanity, which he saw as an internationally applied mechanism that uses principles of national law to protect the well-being of individuals against acts by the country in which they reside, such as enslavement, deportation, torture, or murder.  Until this point the state was seen as an entity whose power was inviolate (some countries still see it this way) but Lauterpacht felt that the right of individuals to liberty and the pursuit of their pleasure was sacrosanct, and superceded a nation's sovereignty.  Lemkin invented the concept of genocide.  In fact, the word did not exist before he coined it.  It was as a law student that Lemkin first felt a sense of outrage towards the Turkish mass slaughter of Armenians.  "So it's a crime for  Tehlirian to strike down one man, but not a crime for that man to have struck down one million men," Lemkin is said to have asked?  Lemkin described the process via which the German state stripped Jews and others first of their nationality - severing them from the state, then dehumanizing them - removing their legal rights (since, being stateless, they no longer could claim the protection of the law), and finally by killing them spiritually, culturally, and eventually literally. Lemkin's concept was focused as a legal solution to this process, and so on crimes committed against groups rather than individuals.  During the Nuremberg trials following World War II, both he and Lauterpacht vied for the use of their mechanism in prosecuting Nazis.  The trial set the precedent for the trying and punishing of such offenses that were excused under the laws of their own countries, but seen as an outrage by broader humanitarian standards.  Mechanisms to carry out international justice have taken a long time to put into practice.  It was the late 1990s before international law had the teeth to punish individuals such as Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, and August Pinochet, former president of Chile, for their crimes.

What Sands does so effectively in this book is mix personal stories with what could be a fairly technical narrative about the origins of international law. The result could have made the personal anecdotes trivial or the legal history dry, but instead Sands's personal drive to find out the next detail about his grandfather becomes the narrative engine.  In the course of researching his book, Sands meets Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank (The Butcher of Poland).  Frank's participation enriches the book with a second personal story that adds layers of human introspection and sadness, as well as an authenticity to the consideration of Hans Frank's guilt.  Although the outcome of the Nuremberg trials was announced long ago, the pages leading up to the tribunal's decision is suspenseful - tracking the development of the application of international law in light of the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, I found myself caring deeply about whose legal work was applied and to the outcome of the trial. It is personal stakes that drove Lauterpacht and Lemkin's efforts, just as it drove Sands's curiosity, and this propels East West Street forward

East West Street also illuminated how old some of the attitudes are that fueled the recent Brexit vote in the UK. In the aftermath of World War I:
President Wilson proposed a special treaty to link Poland's membership in the League of Nations with a commitment to bestow equal treatment on racial and national minorities.  Wilson was supported by France, but Britain objected, fearful that similar rights would then be accorded to other groups, including "American negroes, Southern Irish, Flemings and Catalans." The new League of Nations must not protect minorities in all countries, a British official complained, or it would have "The right to protect the Chinese in Liverpool, the Roman Catholics in France, the French in Canada, quite apart from more serious problems, such as the Irish."  Britain objected to any depletion of sovereignty - the right to treat others as it wished - or international oversight.  It took this position even if the price was more "Injustice and oppression."

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