Posted on 01-04-2010
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

On Friday, Saudi Arabia is scheduled to execute Lebanese TV host Ali Hussain Sibat for sorcery.  See link.  Sibat’s “crime” was hosting a TV show based in Lebanon where he claimed to be able to read the future.  He was arrested by Saudi religious police when he visited the Kingdom for a religious pilgrimage.  None of the acts of the supposed crime took place on Saudi soil, the accused is not a Saudi national. Yet Saudi Arabia has arrogated to itself the right to judge a case of apostasy for a foreign Muslim merely because the acts were broadcast into the country (and even more so because the unfortunate Mr. Sibat was conveniently on Saudi soil).  This is similar to what would have happened to Salaman Rushdie if the fatwa against him was meaningfully carried out.  The slippery slopes of this logic are endless.  Muslims world wide, particularly those whose jobs get them on TV, now face potential charges for violation of Saudi Arabia’s archaic laws the next time they visit there for any reason.

This is obscene.

In the interest of fairness one must note that making a living as a fortune teller was (and in many states is still) illegal in the United States.  However, these are not capital offenses.  Apart from the lack of proportionality for the alleged offense (which to me should not be illegal), my rant is headed in a different direction.  The Saudis are not the first country to assert Universal Jurisdiction for crimes unconnected or fairly lightly connected to their country.

A few years Belgium ticked off many of its allies by granting its courts legal jurisdiction to hear human rights complaints from any corner of the world even if no Belgian national or Belgian interests were involved.  Just why Belgium smugly decided it had the right to sit in judgment over the world is not clear.  It is not as if the Belgian nation in its rickety 180 years of existence has been particularly pure, particularly in the Congo.  It was at the same time Spain asserted its right to overrule the political agreement in Chile whereby Augusto Pinochet stepped down and permitted the restoration of democracy in exchange for immunity, by trying to arrest the former dictator.  This conveniently ignored a similar amnesty Spain instituted for the Falange after the death of Franco.  Human rights groups like Amnesty International have cheered on these attempts for national courts to enforce Universal Jurisdiction.  I disagree.

National sovereignty is no longer an absolute protection for human rights violations.  But the ugly reality of international law is that human rights cases are enforced only against the weak.  The other ugly reality is that they are often a sword used to justify political ends and harass opponents.  Also arrogating the power to try a bunch of human rights cases to a bunch of former colonial powers reeks of neo-colonialism.  Decisions by these courts are unlikely to hold much moral water in the countries being targeted.

A spin-off of the claims of universal jurisdiction for the type of cases cited above are “crimes” performed in another country that are broadcast around the world by the internet or satellite television.  Many of the cases (particularly in Europe) have involved lawsuits against the instruments of broadcast like Google or YouTube.  For example see here.

While Amnesty has criticized the horrendous Saudi case on free speech grounds it has not acknowledged the harm of letting the universal jurisdiction genie out.  In a world where cultural norms vary and where a large portion of the world does not follow the Western devotion to individual human rights, this is a double edge sword.  So we are creating an odd situation where the sovereign shield may not protect its own subjects but can be used as a sword against unconnected foreigners.  Also, cases like the claims against Google will strike at the roots of global commerce and chill free speech on the web.  The burden should shift to countries to institute filters on what cannot be shown in their country rather than gratuitously striking at foreign entities.  Of course this reeks of the censorship practiced by China and Iran so the Europeans prefer to strike back in home courts.

Federalism in the United States has struggled to adapt to changing technology and improvements in communication technology.  Needless to say the burdens are far higher at the international level where different social, legal, religious and cultural norms collide with another.  More cases like the unfortunate Mr. Sibat are likely to arise unless the concept of universal legal jurisdiction is reined in.  For Mr. Sibat his best hope is to pray for King Abdullah who has shown clemency for similar judicial excesses in the past to step in.

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