Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bearing Witness: Policy, Pictures and the Rule of Law

Modern writers make much of the rule of law, understood generally as describing political systems the coercive rules of which are created through regular processes (usually involving principles of democratic governance) and mediated through rules applied by instrumentalities of a state apparatus. International rule of aw, as it is developing, is based on similar conceptions. Especially with respect to human rights, many elements of the global intelligentsia look forward to the day when international standards of human rights supersede public and private contract and municipal law. This includes work, for example, to further "the fundamental right of the world's citizens to have disputes heard and determined by an independent judiciary, and for judges and lawyers to practise freely and without interference." International Bar Association, Human Rights Institute.

But it is important to remember that technology, especially in the conveyance of information, may be critical to any enterprise in the creation of global normative standards. In this case, the internet, and other forms of electronic communication, has made the dissemination of ideas much less costly, much more available , and much more effective. But it is not merely words that have have a great impact on the construction and maintenance of global rule of law values. Pictures, another great product of technological innovation with great social, political and legal effect, have played an even more decisive role.

Pictures have become the great medium of communication to a global population, whose values play a key role in the policy determinations of governments that are, or must be, responsive to manifestations of the popular will. Pictures of the suffering in Dafour have had more impact within global politics than other methods of political discourse. See United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Brian Seidle, Dafur Eyewitness (2005). And not just governments are subject to the effects of visual media. Multinational corporations and elements of civil society have played out the great contest over corporate social responsibility, in part, through visual ads run in major media outlets and the Internet. See for example, Edelweiss Silan, Child Labor in Asia (Edelweiss F. Silan is the Coordinator of the civil society organization Child Workers in Asia (CWA)).

Elements of civil society are acutely aware of the impact of pictures on policy debates, and on the conduct of corporations. I was reminded of this recently when reading about the 2007 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. As Stuart Klawans correctly noted in his review of the entries, the "films remind us that the enforcement of rights, or even the recognition of them, often begins with the click of a shutter." Stuart Klawans, "Tribute to Those Who Bear Witness," The New York Times, Section 2, at 23, June 10, 2007 (quoting Susan Sontag as noting that "The very notion of atrocity, of war crime, is associated with the expectation of photographic evidence." For those engaged in the great law and policy debates about normative standards, it should be remembered that pictures remain an essential weapon in shaping the understanding of complex matters--of fixing its image in the popular imagination.

But pictures are neutral media. They serve who ever has the foresight and skill tio use them effectively. And thus it is no surprise that elements of what are understood as terrorist organizations ave made as effective a use of pictures (and their distribution through the Internet) as any advocate of human rights and human dignity. A World Wide Web of Terror, The Economist, July 12, 2007.
The ease and cheapness of processing words, pictures, sound and video has brought the era not only of the citizen-journalist but also the terrorist-journalist. Al-Qaeda now sends out regular “news bulletins” with a masked man in a studio recounting events from the many fronts of jihad, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya or Palestine. Jihadi ticker-tape feeds provide running updates on the number of Americans killed (about ten times more than the Pentagon's death toll).

A World Wide Web of Terror, The Economist, July 12, 2007. Thus one of the greatest applications of the lessons taught by the great pioneers in global human rights may have been learned well by others: "Film everything; this is good advice for all mujahideen [holy warriors]. Brothers, don't disdain photography. You should be aware that every frame you take is as good as a missile fired at the Crusader enemy and his puppets." Id.

Law, in this century, will increasingly be written in pictures.

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