Last month a jury in Kitsap County rendered an astonishing verdict. It was, of course, ignored by the mainstream media.
In the case of eight anti-nuclear protesters arrested last summer at the gates of the Bangor nuclear submarine base, a jury found the protesters not guilty on the basis of international law. In theory, the US constitution says that treaties the United States signs with other sovereign nations (including Indian tribes) take precedence over federal, state, and local law. In practice, such defenses are rarely allowed by US judges or legitimized by juries. As a precedent, the Bangor Eight verdict opens the door—at least in Kitsap County—for civil disobedience on the basis that governments or corporations are themselves breaking the law.
The case that led to this was relatively benign. Last August 9, the 53rd anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki, 22 people were arrested for various symbolic protests as part of a rally protesting the planned upgrade of nuclear weaponry at the Bangor base (Impolitics, 3/25). Eight activists, arrested for blocking the county road at the main entrance to the base, took their case to court.
Anti-nuclear activism at Bangor was a big deal in the mid-'80s, the era of Ronald Reagan, "winnable" nuclear wars, and the white trains. In recent years, it's been a lot quieter; since the end of the Cold War, the menace of imminent nuclear annihilation has been much farther from the public's mind. But the threat has never really gone away, and in fact has been escalating of late despite—or perhaps because of—the lack of the Red Menace.
The US in the '90s has almost constantly been at war, or helping other folks who are at war, somewhere in the world. In our most recent Balkan adventure, the Clinton administration managed to antagonize both the Russians and the Chinese, our two most likely nuclear adversaries. Last year, longtime mutual enemies India and Pakistan exploded nuclear devices for the first time. Russia, of course, has a whole array of leftover nukes that may or may not be under stable stewardship, and that may or may not even be entirely accounted for. And we keep expanding our arsenal, spending staggering sums of money to enrich defense contractors with projects that can, incidentally, ever more effectively incinerate the planet at a moment's notice. So why is the public so secure?
US breaking international law
Against these disturbing trends, the international community has been mounting a strong drive in recent years toward nuclear disarmament. Key to this—and cited by the Bangor Eight in their defense—was a 1996 International Court of Justice ruling that: "The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law."
The protesters' defense, quite simply, was that the Bangor base's threat of using nukes is illegal, and that their efforts to stop that threat—however ineffectual—were therefore legal.
The activists also cited the Nuremberg Principles, signed by the US in 1945 in the wake of the Nazi atrocities of World War II. In Article VI, the Principles state that "Any person, whether a member of the armed forces or a civilian, who commits any of the following acts during peace or war commits a crime against international law: a) Crimes against peace; namely, planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances . . ."
It helped that the protesters, including a high school teacher, a Seattle minister, and other "respectable" members of the community, were respectful and gave intelligent and often moving testimony in court. A similar verdict in a 1985 Bangor case resulted in the county's not prosecuting protest cases for many years. This second such verdict could help inspire further protests as the Bangor facility undergoes its $5 billion upgrade project. (Another act of civil disobedience is planned for next month, again on the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing.)
But the approach of invoking international law to justify protests of US government policy has much wider application, because, well, the US violates an awful lot of international laws. The recent bombing of Serbia, by many accounts, violated international law (as well as US law and the NATO charter). The US arms trade—did somebody say "Boeing"?—is predicated upon governments violating international law as they attack their own civilian populations. The US has dragged its feet over any number of recent international environmental agreements.
Ironically, civil disobedience in the near future in Seattle is most likely to surround the World Trade Organization's meetings here this fall. In that case, much of the protest will regard the subjugation of local laws before international treaties—the WTO agreements allow challenges to local laws before a pro-corporate secret tribunal in Geneva. As international law takes an increasingly pivotal role with a global economy, more attention needs to be focused on how such laws are made.
Sweeping provisions for human rights like Nuremberg, or the Geneva Convention, are wonderful—but they may take their place in the new century next to trade agreements that cement the ability of corporations to crush whole peoples in the name of profit. It's easy to imagine a corporation defending its amoral practices by citing lax international environmental standards. A judge and jury in Kitsap County have opened an interesting can of worms. And they've given us a useful reminder: nuclear weapons are still with us. They're expensive and dangerous. And illegal.