History shows that when a powerful empire sets sail overseas its spokespeople often depict the undertaking as an effort to create order and bring peace. When a pirate ship ventures into the open seas, by contrast, the empire portrays the endeavor as a crime against humanity. The difference is not so much what emperors and pirates do—both pillage and plunder, albeit to vastly different degrees. What matters most is which of the two is in a position to effectively define right and wrong.
This history seemed to repeat itself on April 20—only days after Barack Obama called the
About 16 centuries ago the renowned theologian
Centuries later, this unjust dynamic became widespread as Western powers carved up the globe. Throughout their colonies they established courts that prosecuted crimes defined by the occupying power. Not surprisingly, the courts typically focused their efforts on the alleged crimes of imperial subjects, while upholding the institutionalized injustices and the acts of physical violence needed to sustain it.
The creation of the United Nations was, among other things, an attempt to overcome the resulting impunity for the relatively powerful. But while the U.N. has had much success in setting international legal and human rights standards, it has been largely ineffective in enforcing them, especially when doing so would challenge the interests of powerful member-states.
This failure is principally one of design, one embedded in the United Nations’ very structure due to the World War II victors’ efforts to ensure that the new international body would allow them to pursue their interests on the global stage. As the Mexican delegate to the founding convention in
More than 60 years later, his words have proven to be prophetic. Accountability for “mice” and impunity for “lions” — and the mice with whom they are on good terms — has become the rule, not the exception in international affairs.
Among many examples, witness the current international tribunal in
As Marlon Brando, in his role as a human rights lawyer in apartheid-era
Bridging the gap between law and justice requires that we in the
It requires that we imagine the possibility that people like “us,” and the officials from countries with which we ally ourselves, might also be held legally accountable for actions abroad, and to endeavor to make the possibility real.
Until we do so, let us not pretend that law and justice are one and the same, or that emperors and pirates are compelled to live by the same standards.
Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at
 Quoted in Noam Chomsky, “Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World” (2nd edition),