Two opinion columns in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, one by Ross Cameron on Vladimir Putin and one by Paul Sheehan on terrorism trials, shared a common theme of minimising the importance of human rights.
Ross Cameron, a conservative Christian former Liberal MP, wrote about Putin’s 10 years of wielding power in one form or another, claiming he is the “finest leader” Russia has had in 300 years. I’d hesitate to call the potted history of Putin’s background and achievements hagiographic, but it comes close. Cameron sees fit to concentrate on Putin’s admittedly impressive economic reforms while ignoring economic mistakes, and glossing over the less salubrious events under his watch. It is only in the last descriptive paragraph that any mention is made of the state of civil rights in Russia, and even then it is in the form of apologia.
Nowhere does Cameron express any misgivings about Putin’s crackdown on democracy (under the traditional despot’s guise of encouraging it), or the brutal practices in Chechnya, or the explosion in corruption at all levels of society. Cameron praised Putin’s commitment to the rule of law, but appears blind to the repeated violations in the media, commerce, and elections. There is no mention of Putin’s pursuit of the original oligarchs, probably because to do so would open up discussion about Putin’s grooming of a new cadre of monopolists, in keeping with his “national champions” ideology.
It strikes me that Putin is basically Havelock Vetinari.
Cameron states that he can’t see why anyone “could regret [Putin’s] continued influence in Russia and the world.” In the absence of a counter-factual, you have to weigh up the pros and cons of what happened. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has plenty of entries on both sides of the ledger. There is nothing to be gained by closing your eyes to the negatives.
Paul Sheehan, an experienced journalist and author, has a much better piece that is somehow more disturbing. He comes down firmly on the side of exceptionalism in the ongoing debate about how to treat people accused of terrorism, and the wider questions it raises about our legal system, tradition and philosophy.
His core argument is that having a rights-based legal system is a weakness in the fight against crime. I say ‘crime’ and not ‘terrorism’, because although Sheehan is only talking about that particular crime, his argument is a general one. And he’s right – we do hamper our crime-fighting efforts by assuming innocence until proof of guilt, by insisting on reliable evidence, by having equality before the law, by having strict procedural rules. It would be much easier and quicker and more effective to dispense with this historical detritus. We would certainly convict a lot more people.
Of course, such an argument is wrong. There is a reason our venerable legal system has accumulated all these protections – because the consequence of removing them is injustice, plain and simple. Sheehan’s proposal is essentially that terrorists are so outside the criminal norm that our standard responses are inadequate. Clearly he doesn’t see the conceptual danger in this. The first pitfall is the right at the start – what is terrorism? Which acts are going to be defined as crimes that negate normal human rights? Where is the cut-off? Such practical questions highlight the absurdity of classifying some people as worthy of legal protections and others not.
The next, more insidious pitfall would appear at some point in the future, maybe sooner than later – if we can treat accused terrorists like this, why not others? After all, there are many heinous crimes, many that are more damaging to society than most acts of terrorism. I’m typically wary of slippery-slope arguments, but on this occasion I believe stepping back from our absolutist legal doctrines could lead to an unravelling of key freedoms gained over a thousand years of judicial progress. That is a much bigger danger than anything terrorists can inflict.