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One of the many curious revelations in the increasingly bizarre saga of the presidential pardon of Marc Rich in the twilight hours of the Clinton administration is especially fascinating to the student of international human rights law. Former President Clinton, in justifying the pardon, explained that Mr. Rich was an unheralded human rights activist. Among his apparently numerous, but unacknowledged, good deeds, one stands out for its carefully crafted hypocrisy. Mossad, the Israeli covert action agency, arranged for Mr. Rich secretly to transfer $400,000 to the Egyptian government, which then established a fund to compensate the families of Israeli victims of a shooting attack by an Egyptian soldier who had run amok in a tourist area near the Egyptian-Israeli border. Thanks to Mr. Rich's anonymous generosity, Egypt could appear to be making voluntary payments to the families, thereby seeming to acknowledge the grave human rights violations that had occurred, while expressing Egypt's contrition for them. Israeli public opinion, which had been aroused by the murders, would be assuaged, while those who viewed events through a human rights lens could take satisfaction in the "fact" that, though horrible things continue to happen, the world as a whole is increasingly sensitive and responsive to human rights claims. We would all feel good, and only Mr. Rich, the Egyptian government, Mossad, and Mr. Clinton would be any the wiser.

If the story is true, it imports something disturbing about the willingness to create and exploit a counterfeit reality with respect to human rights. Had the issue simply been one of rehabilitating or compensating victims, Mr. Rich would have established the fund in question in Israel. But, by pretending that this was a spontaneous Egyptian action, the scheme created a filigree of expectations that was not grounded in reality. Presumably, the justification for the subterfuge was that it would maintain popular support within Israel for a peace treaty that one party did not seem to be supporting with sufficient conviction and enthusiasm. The result was a perception about the reality of human rights achievements that was quite discrepant from what actually was occurring.

We believe that the United States is embarked on a similar exercise of counterfeiting reality with respect to compensation for victims of violations of international human rights. We accept the utility of symbols in politics and the important function of myth systems in law, 1 and we believe that, in the continuum of attitudes and behavior, social change can be brought about by intervening in either. But we fear that the counterfeiting operation that is underway, abetted in different ways by all three branches of our government, by the human rights community, and by the plaintiffs' bar, ultimately will cause serious injury to international law and actually sets back the program for the protection of human rights by diverting attention from the critical issues. This should be acknowledged and openly examined.


International Law | International Relations | Law


2001 Hugo Black Lecture.