In the last few weeks, Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal, and South Africa has had its universal jurisdiction laws put to the test. In Libya, a law was passed giving immunity to members of militias, while El Salvador’s government favored nationality over universality in denying extradition to Spain. The Spanish government, in turn, was unwilling to confront its own human rights crimes, so claimants turned transnationally to courts in Argentina.
These cases, which I’ll address in coming posts, can be variously interpreted—as signs of progress or politicized justice or both. Yet questions of international justice need not be transcendental. Are ordinary people being empowered? Are those who abuse power being challenged and held accountable? International justice and human rights are always partial and incomplete projects—instruments of social change in an imperfect world. Activists know this, which is why they celebrate the small victories while fixing their sights, audaciously so, on a longer arc of progress.