We all watched these last weeks as the Egyptian people, inspired by the Tunisian Lavendar Revolution, over threw the oppressive ruling regime of Hosni Murabak. As we watch the revolutionary sentiment spread throughout the Middle East region many new issues arise. One issue that has not garnered much public contemplation is the interplay of international law with the practicalities of what is actually happening. Namely, will the overthrown leaders be held responsible in the International Criminal Court for their human rights violations and who are the recognized ruling entities who the international community will deal with until permanent governments are established.
As for the accountability of the overthrown rulers of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, it is likely contingent on where those people are located. International law gains its jurisdiction through consent of the sovereign nations who submit to it. Countries are sovereign entities controlling their own destiny which includes whether or not to adhere to international law. This can include a sovereign nation choosing to only adhere to portions of international law. Thus, wherever Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia) are located it will be up to the leadership of those countries to decide to detain and turn over those men to international authorities. What is more, does the international community have an obligation to turn those deposed rulers over to their former people to stand trial in their respective homelands?
Another interesting aspect of the turmoil in the Middle East is who the international community is supposed to recognize as the countries’ governing body. In the case of Tunisia, an interim government has been established yet there is impatience mounting with the transition to a permanent government. In Egypt, the military has assumed control of the country until a permanent government is in place. In both situations, the international community has ruling bodies to deal with but the question arises as to whether these entities are to be recognized indefinitely. Does the international community have the legal and moral authority to eventually refuse to recognize these interim ruling bodies as the governments of their respective countries if they refuse to relinquish power?
All in all, we are witnessing amazing times. Just as with the fall of the Berlin Wall 22 years ago, we are witnessing a fundamental change to an entire region. Will this lead to the end of totalitarian and dictatorial governments in the Middle East just as the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the demise of the Soviet Union and its authoritarian communist rule of the entire Eastern European region, only time will tell. In the meantime, as events unfold in the Middle East we get to be witnesses to history and contemplate the far reaching consequences and questions raised by these events.