Geoffrey Robertson’s ‘humanitarian’ infallibility

The QC’s belief that the West can liberate people by bombing their countries makes the pope’s delusions look almost rational by comparison.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This article is republished from the September 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Has there ever been a man as arrogant as Geoffrey Robertson, otherwise known as Mr Kathy Lette, the British-Australian celebrity QC and floppy-haired hero of the Islington-inhabiting, human rightsy crowd?

Pope Benedict XVI – the target of Robertson’s latest screed – might fancy himself as God’s representative on Earth and therefore infallible. But he hasn’t got a patch on Robertson, whose megalomania extends from proffering loopy legalistic justifications for the Western world’s bombing of Iraq back to the Stone Age in 1991 to pursuing a one-man war against the ‘pernicious doctrine’ of sovereignty on the basis that it protects political ‘scoundrels’ from ‘international justice’ (or what we might call ‘Robertson’s Law’).

Now, for his final trick, Robertson wants to throw open the doors of the Holy See, which he views as an irritating island of stick-in-the-mud sovereignty, and drag the pope of Rome himself before the kangaroo courts of so-called international justice. Truly, he will not be happy until his righteous writ extends everywhere.

The most alarming thing about Robertson’s book – The Case of the Pope – is that it is being treated so seriously by commentators. Written in the style of a legal document, with a list of 245 points against the Vatican, the book covers everything from the child abuse scandal that has rocked the church to the phoney nature of the Holy See’s sovereignty to the role that the Holy See plays in pressuring small nations at the UN to accept its dogma on condoms and abortion.

Yet those who have welcomed the book as a simple, clear-eyed, lawyerly argument against Holy See sovereignty, and for the potential arrest and trial of the pope, are overlooking the full-on political war that Robertson has spearheaded against the institution of sovereignty for more than 10 years now. His new attack on the Vatican, published by Penguin to coincide with Benedict’s visit to Britain, should be properly seen, not as a radical assertion of liberal humanist values over the institutionalisation of religious obscurantism, but as the latest salvo by a leading figure in the meddle-hungry human rights industry against the old ideals of sovereign equality and non-interference in other states’ affairs.

It will come as no surprise that Robertson’s tract is infused with some of the middle-class prejudices against Catholics that came to the fore of liberal public debate in Britain during Benedict’s visit. There’s the old line about Catholics being brainwashed by their priests; they are ‘indoctrinated from their childhood’ until they develop such ‘emotional and psychological respect’ for their priests that they’ll do anything the men in dog collars ask.

There’s the idea that Third World Catholics in particular are prone to turning priestly propaganda into real acts of violence, a bit like attack dogs. We’re told that ‘in Brazil and other Catholic countries’ there have been ‘macho muggings’ of gays, possibly brought about by Benedict’s decision to ‘unleash the full force of [the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuality]’. The priest speaks and the people act, because, as one expert quoted by Robertson puts it, ‘priests take the place of Jesus Christ and are to be obeyed at all costs, and never questioned or criticised’. They’re easily brainwashed, these Caflicks.

Then there is the argument that some Catholic views are so out there, so off the wall, that when they are spouted by Benedict, who exercises great influence over his flock, they become dangerous and might therefore have to be censored. Robertson argues that while it is wrong to censor ordinary individuals who make religious anti-gay comments in public, ‘Pope Benedict XVI is no voice in the wilderness’ – ‘were he to repeat in a public sermon [in Britain] his oft-stated view that homosexuality is “evil” and gays are all people with defective personalities, he would be using the full force of his spiritual office to vilify a section of the population protected by equality legislation and public order law’. In such circumstances, ‘the Home Office could not… permit his entry’, decrees Robertson.

However much Robertson tries to dress this up in the language of equality and protecting certain sections of the population from harm, it still amounts to suggesting that the state ought sometimes to interfere with and restrict people’s freedom of religion. In the Catholic case in particular – where Robertson and others seriously believe that Catholic kids are turned into priest-respecting automatons and the pope has a special hold over every Catholic’s heart and mind – the state might have to curb religious speech in the interests of preventing public disorder. And macho muggings.

While this kind of outlook has become par for the course in liberal, atheistic, so-called humanist circles in Britain, the more striking part of Robertson’s book is his stinging attack on the idea of Holy See sovereignty. I should state right now that I am no old-fashioned defender of sovereignty, especially not the Vatican’s sovereignty. As an internationalist, I can think of far better ways to organise world affairs than to divide mankind into different, often conflicting sovereign territories. I do, however, defend a people’s right to fight for and assert their self-determination against both international intervention and tyrannical rulers. And as a radical humanist, I am implacably opposed to the tiny, population-less Holy See having permanent observer status at the United Nations, where it does indeed lobby behind the scenes for restrictions on the exercise of reproductive rights, especially in the Third World.

Yet it’s important to recognise why Robertson and other intervention-happy human rights activists are so hostile to the institution of sovereignty: it’s because they view it as a barrier to having the ‘international community’ barge its way into usually small, normally black or brown states to arrest the ‘scoundrels’ who run them. In short, the sins of the tradition of sovereignty pale almost into insignificance when compared with the gung-ho, border-busting, World Police-style system that Robertson and Co. would like to replace sovereignty with.

Those championing Robertson’s apparently liberal assault on Vatican sovereignty are overlooking, or ignoring, the fact that he has previous on this issue. In the post-Cold War period, Robertson has been amongst the most vehement critics of sovereignty. It’s a ‘pernicious doctrine’, he has argued; a ‘stumbling block for the development of international justice’; it is ‘the refuge of scoundrels’. In 1998, in that liberal interventionist moment which culminated in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (600 civilians dead), Robertson was on the side of ‘humanitarian’ interventionists such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton when he said, ‘It has taken half a century but we seem at last to be working out a way to bring tyrants to justice. Why did it take so long? The problem is that the world has always been organised on the principle of “sovereignty” of the state, [the idea that] there must be no intervention in their internal affairs.’

This principle of non-intervention (which, for the record, from Aden to Vietnam to Panama, was never adhered to by Western powers during the Cold War period) is viewed by Robertson and others as a barrier to them fulfilling their fantasy about being knights in shining armour who can save the destitute and downtrodden of the world. Robertson has over the years attacked any state that jealously guarded its sovereignty rather than opening itself up to ‘international justice’. China is ‘the most obsessive defender of state sovereignty’, he has declared; that pesky Colonel Gaddafi, when elected chairman of the African Union, turned it into ‘the main opponent of the International Criminal Court, guaranteeing to protect Omar al-Bashir from its arrest warrant over his alleged crimes in Darfur’.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2008, Robertson even shared his fantasies about setting up a ‘Convention Against Tyranny’, which, the interviewer told us, would be ‘capable of giving legal justification in order to overthrow evildoers’. This is how Robertson sees himself: as a warrior against the ‘Machiavellian doctrine’ of sovereignty because it stands in the way of his pursuit of those whom the ‘international community’ decree to be ‘evil’.

In Robertson’s ideal world, the basis upon which the righteous of the international community (the West) should be permitted to force their way into those scoundrel-like states that hide behind sovereignty (the rest) should be expanded. At present, intervention is largely confined to situations where ‘genocide’ is occurring; Robertson argued in 2008 for a situation where ‘other forms of barbarism’ could be cited as a justification for the overthrow of evildoers, including, for example, ‘the Taliban’s denial of education to women and girls’. In short, any sinning state, any entity judged by international law to be wicked, should be subject to Robertson and Co.’s sword of justice.

And what a terrible sword it can be. A great irony of The Case of the Pope is that such is the extent of Robertson’s fervour for war against evil that he makes the pope look like a paragon of peace and justice in comparison. Robertson slams the Vatican for ‘regularly condemn[ing] wars – no matter how just’. And one of those ‘just’ wars that the Vatican opposed was ‘the first Gulf War, to drive Saddam out of Kuwait, which he had unlawfully invaded’. Otherwise known as the war that left 180,000 Iraqis dead, entire towns destroyed, and most of Iraq in a state not too far from the ‘Stone Age’, as one boastful American official described it. It seems that any level of tyranny is justified in combating tyranny; all forms of barbarism can be deployed in the fight against ‘other forms of barbarism’. When you have right on your side, you can do no wrong. The kind of one-eyed self-righteousness that can make someone think that the ‘international community’ is combating tyranny even as it massacres thousands really puts so-called Catholic self-delusion into perspective, and makes the idea of papal infallibility seem almost meek in comparison.

The authoritarianism and divisiveness of the post-sovereignty system of ‘international justice’ is best summed up in the International Criminal Court. Robertson was an early cheerleader, of course, arguing in 2000 that the ICC would be a ‘court for all the world’. Really? Finally instituted in 2002, the ICC is in reality a racist institution which drags African leaders to be tried for crimes against humanity. Its cases have included Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Darfur/Sudan. What do all the defendants have in common? That’s right, they are all what the old colonialists would have at least more honestly described as ‘niggers’. As Courtenay Griffiths QC, the defence lawyer for Charles Taylor at The Hague, recently said: ‘How is it possible that in 2010 we have a situation where every indicted individual at the ICC is African and every investigation is, guess where, Africa…? [T]he ICC was set up to try those lesser breeds without the law – the Africans. This is the same civilising mission from the late nineteenth century and I find it, as a black man, totally objectionable.’

This is what the liberal-elite war on sovereignty has resulted in: not increased internationalism and global equality, but their opposite – the jungle-style division of the world into the righteous forces of the West and the savages ‘over there’, and wars which have left thousands dead (but it doesn’t matter, because they died in the name of ‘combating tyranny’). Robertson’s arguments against Holy See sovereignty need to be seen in this light. Far from being a positive assertion of secularism over the international privileging of a particular religion, this looks to me more like an attempted final blow against the institution of sovereignty, the haranguing of an institution that continues jealously to guard its right to sovereign independence and integrity and the non-interference of other states and their agents in its affairs. Okay, there’s nothing positive about Holy See sovereignty; but nor is there anything positive in what motivates the main arguments against Holy See sovereignty today.

The great irony is that the human-rights lobby today plays a role that is not too dissimilar from the Catholic Church’s role of yesteryear. Robertson quotes a nineteenth-century historian who said that the then Vatican was attempting to ‘establish a power which would be the most formidable enemy of liberty… throughout the world’. In short, the Vatican had global ambitions; it longed to make everyone submit to its religious ethos and worldview and to assert its moral authority across the nations. Ring a bell?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

This article is republished from the September 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today