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City Perspectives: Whistleblowers, Wikileaks and how politics corrupts the law

Dr Joe Hoover examines how the trials of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange and the Edward Snowden whistle-blower saga clearly demonstrate the gap between our legal institutions and our sense of right and wrong.
by Ben Sawtell

nullBy Dr Joe Hoover, Lecturer and Course Director, MA International Politics & Human Rights, Department of International Politics.

I think that the most important thing that the Bradley Manning trial shows us is the gap that opens up between our legal institutions and our sense of right and wrong, between the law and morality. Many people around the world are shocked by Manning's imprisonment.

People are shocked partly because he has been held under conditions that the UN said violated his human rights, but also because Manning is being tried for exposing the actions of US soldiers and diplomats, including evidence of many potential and confirmed human rights violations. Manning's supporters are incredulous and view the proceedings now taking place at Fort Meade as illegitimate.

The law corrupted by politics and authority

I understand this incredulity and on a level I share it. What I want to suggest, however, is that what we are seeing in the trial of this young man is even more troubling than the corruption of the law by politics - it reveals that the law is always suffused with politics. The law is a technical code. Yes, it is also a normative system that is supposed to determine right and wrong, guilt and innocence. But it is vital that we do not forget that it is a technical code first and foremost, a code that political authorities use to justify their power. Therefore, those with the capacity to influence and manipulate the legal code will always be at an advantage, will always be able to shape that code not towards the pursuit of justice but towards their own interests.

Finnish legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi calls the gap between apology and utopia. The law has its utopian moments and this is especially true of human rights law - for example, Manning supporters see him as a hero who has exposed the grievous crimes of the US government and its military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. They appeal to human rights standards that are quintessential moral claims, but which sadly lack the force of political authority and so are not reliably protected. This is important, but the law also has its moment of apology, where it serves the interests of established authorities, of powerful actors like the US government.

This insight in and of itself is important for our understanding of the relationship between the law and politics, but there's a further element of the Manning trial that I think is vital to focus on. The particular apology that the law is making for the authority of the US government is to make the telling of truths illegal. That is a vital idea to understand. The US government is claiming that telling the truth is against the law, and in Manning's case, if that truth "aided" the enemy, then his punishment for exposing the truth could be life imprisonment.

Making the truth illegal

There have been attempts to discredit Manning (and we will hear more of this as the trial goes on as well) but whatever his reasons for publicising the truth of US actions, it is a disturbing move to try to make the truth illegal. I choose that awkward formulation intentionally. The US government claims to be preserving its state secrets, its security, but let us make no elisions here, the US government is claiming its security depends upon the government being able to criminalising the truth.

The Manning trial also shows us another side of the law. We have seen a push back against the apologetic deferral to US power. Many have praised his actions because they brought a number of human rights violations to light. Others have taken up his cause because defending Manning's actions is vital to defending freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and especially to protecting whistle-blowers. All of these are laudable uses of the law for moral ends - and one should not forget the work done to challenge Manning's treatment after his arrest. Yet, there's a wider issue at stake that has been under-emphasised: do we have a right to the truth?

Continue reading Dr Hoover's essay at thedissorderofthings.com

Photo credit: Portrait of Dr Joe Hoover by Brianne O'Brien www.brianneobrien.com

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