On 13 August 2017, the wife of Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, Grace Mugabe, assaulted Gabriella Engels, a South African model, on South African soil, in an upmarket hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg.
After the expected confusion in the wake of the event, the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) granted Mugabe diplomatic immunity and allowed her to leave the country without a care in the world about being prosecuted. This despite the fact that diplomatic immunity is founded upon the notion that the messengers between governments – the diplomats – should not be punished for doing their jobs, as was the case in the pre-legal era. Grace Mugabe is assuredly not a diplomat, and was in Johannesburg on personal business (it’s hard work spending the stolen wealth of the oppressed people of Zimbabwe).
DIRCO, however, reasoned that it wanted to protect South Africa’s relationship with Zimbabwe – despite the Zimbabwean government being virtually dependent on South Africa and the international community for its continued functioning – that it wanted to ensure the upcoming Southern African Development Community summit went down without a hitch, and that it wanted to give effect to international law.
The episode reminded me of my thoughts during my international law courses when I was pursing my law degree.
I remember thinking that international law was oddly libertarian – it is based almost entirely on the two principles which make up the philosophy of liberty: Sovereignty and consent. Of course, this is sovereignty and consent as it relates to countries, not individuals, but it was an interesting thought nonetheless. If only we could accept the tenets of international law domestically and apply it not between nations, but between people, would libertaranism be practicable.
But the scandal with Grace Mugabe shows that apparently international law does apply between people. It was applied between Gabriella Engels, who was seriously injured, and Grace Mugabe, who strolled away without consequence. This was not Mugabe’s first rodeo. She is clearly aware that her status as the wife of a head of state (albeit a patently illegitimate one) has made her untouchable as she gallivants around the world spending the wealth of the starving people of Zimbabwe. So this is not the kind of libertarianism we would want – it’s a bastardized libertarianism applied only between members of the political class. Vast swathes of international law is simply libertarianism for politicians, and betrays one of the most important framework elements of the libertarian philosophy: The Rule of Law.
I have written elsewhere why the unjustifiable quirks of international law should rather be abandoned if we are to take the Rule of Law seriously.
In my international law courses, my professors and lecturers liked to point out how the United States was a rogue or irresponsible state for arrogantly ‘opting out’ of international law rules which are understood to apply to all nations, or simply not sign international treaties which it insists other countries must adhere to. Having always had an appreciation for American exceptionalism, I shrugged this off. But it is clear that America isn’t really opting out of anything. International law simply formalizes that which is true regardless: That politicians can do as they please while we plebs have to obey their rules.
It is no better than the statist assumptions of national law (and this article shouldn’t be taken as indicating my preference for national law), and to the extent that it violates libertarian principles, notions of natural justice, and the Rule of Law, should be opposed.
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