The West puts others on trial for war crimes, the argument goes, while exempting its own forces from scrutiny.
This weekend in Chicago, President Obama will gather with more than 60 heads of state to hold NATO's 25th anniversary summit. He and other leaders will convene as a Western-created system of international justice - enforced in many places by NATO - has grown stronger, and raised expectations of accountability around the world.
This week, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic finally went on trial in The Hague for war crimes in Bosnia after evading justice for 17 years. Last month, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes by a separate international court. And in a surprising example of the spreading expectation of international justice, protests among the Syrian diaspora have included signs demanding Bashar al-Assad be sent to The Hague.
At the same time, as people around the globe see war criminals brought to justice, they want to see the world's most powerful armies held accountable as well. Outside the U.S. and Europe, there is a growing sense of a two-tiered system of international justice. The West puts others on trial for war crimes, the argument goes, while exempting its own forces from scrutiny.
"There is a contradiction," said Richard Dicker, the head of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "As the reach of justice extends further and as expectations of justice increase, the shortcoming in the uneven landscape - the uneven application of law to all - becomes more stark."
Some of the perceptions are exaggerated. The U.S. and NATO are not evil incarnate, nor are they perfect. A recent examination by Human Rights Watch, for example, found that the seven-month NATO bombing campaign in Libya killed at least 72 civilians but that the alliance took major steps to try to avoid such casualties. Taylor and Mladic, meanwhile, went out of their way to kill civilians.
The belief that there is a double standard, though, is visceral outside NATO. In conversations with me over the last several years, everyone from Chinese intellectuals to Bosnian Serb civilians to Taliban fighters have passionately believed that the West's crimes are far worse than those of the people hauled before international tribunals.
Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said America's actions as it targets suspected terrorists around the world undermine its role in bringing fugitives like Taylor and Mladic to justice.
"The U.S.'s use of drones, targeted killings and indefinite detention is actually destabilizing the international system of law it helped to create," she said.
One hundred and twenty-one states have signed and ratified the treaty that created the International Criminal Court in 2002 and agreed that their citizens can be tried there for war crimes. The world's three most militarily powerful nations - the United States, China and Russia - have declined to join the treaty, depriving the new, Hague-based court of binding jurisdiction over their citizens. As a result, in most cases it would take the passage of U.N. Security Council resolution for an American, Chinese or Russian to be tried by the International Criminal Court. Considering the Security Council vetoes that the U.S., Russia, and China enjoy, that will likely never happen.
The system plays out unevenly in other ways. Moscow's veto protects those close to it, such as Syrian President Assad. China's veto, for example, protects North Korea's autocratic regime. And critics of Israel say America's veto does the same for Israeli transgressions.
"The most powerful states - among whom there are great distinctions in commitment to the rule of law - nonetheless hold themselves at a distance or beyond these international justice standards," Dicker said, "creating the perception - and the reality - of hypocrisy and a double standard. And that needs to change."