"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."
In some ways, there is a double standard. To be blunt, Taylor and
Mladic are comparatively easy pickings. International pariahs with no
powerful allies, their arrests and convictions cost U.S. and NATO
leaders little political capital.