Rule of Law

The other day a colleague who is familiar with my slightly subversive views maliciously presented me with a philosophical challenge:

– How come you who so fervently believe in the rule of law defend people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange?
It is true that I passionately believe in the rule of law, defined by the UN as follows:

“… a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.”

(You will find other definitions of the “rule of law”, definitions from which the last clause – “and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards” is absent.)

Back to my malicious colleague: I took the moral highground: Edward Snowden and Julian Assange did not have the right to violate certain legal provisions; they had a duty to do so.

– Ah, said my colleague with a sly smile, so when you face the enemy, the rule of law no longer applies?

I must admit that my mumbled reply was not very impressive. I saw where he was going, and I am a terrible chess player. He would make sure I’d soon be writhing in a corner (figuratively that is) admitting that to defend my values, we must do whatever it takes, whereas to defend your values – if they differ from mine – we must play by the rules.

Now I am an extremely law-abiding citizen. I don’t even cheat on my taxes, and wouldn’t do so even if I had the chance, for the simple reason that I’m proud of paying my share of the upkeep of this country. Nevertheless, my sympathy for rule breakers does not stop at Snowden and Assange. I also have full sympathy with hackers “Anonymous” when they claim to be taking down the “enemy’s” Twitter accounts (again, on the assumption that their enemy is my enemy, and ISIS certainly is a shared enemy.) Taking down a Twitter account is, however, a far, far cry from “Guantanamo Bay” and universal telecom surveillance.

The self-styled “Islamic State” and Boko Haram are not the only monsters lurking in the shadows. There are other agents of rape and mutilation out there. And some of them are friends of our friends. Take the Uzbek government, for instance – just about as bad as they come, yet several European governments including my own, have invested heavily in Uzbekistan. A recent scandal rocked the press in my country for a couple of days, but all is surprisingly silent now. Was it too close to home for the powers that be?

I quote the Norwegian Helsinki Committee:

It is widely known that authoritarian regimes put as a condition for providing licenses to mobile telephone and internet providers that they get full access to content and meta ‐ data of communications on the systems. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has inter alia criticized the Swedish company Telia Sonera and the Russian company Vimpelcom (partly owned by the Norwegian company Telenor) for providing authorities in Uzbekistan and Belarus full access to their systems.

Meanwhile, in Sweden (source: the Guardian), the prosecuting authority is taking an Uzbek hit-man to court. He is suspected of having been acting at the orders of the Uzbek government when he shot an Uzbek opposition politician in the head. He did it in Malmö. That’s in Sweden. The impudence!! Yet, Sweden has also been investing heavily in Uzbekistan.

If our own governments don’t play by the rules, how can they expect us, to whom they are accountable, to do so? If our governments practise realpolitik  why should not we also do so, at least in self-defence. The question is: Should hackers in one country, mine for instance, defend violently suppressed people in another, eg, the “ganster state” Uzbekistan?

That, I think, is the real philosophical challenge. Would the consequences be all-bad, as have those of the military intervientions in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya?

Finally, should it occur to you to you to ask me, let me be clear: Any hacker who, for personal gain, abuses his/her skills (e.g. online bank fraud, industrial espionage, etc.) will find no more sympathy at my door than a medical doctor who kills his/her patients. There are certain things one just doesn’t do!