The classic definition of the New York expression chutzpah is that of an only child who pleads clemency to the court because he is an orphan after murdering his parents. Two new examples of chutzpah have appeared surrounding the proposed visit of the Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
According to an article in the New York Times of September 18, the President of Sudan has submitted a visa request to attend the U.N. meeting in New York. The United States, as the host country, is obliged to grant visas to foreign heads of states who wish to attend. The chutzpah of Mr. al-Bashir is that he is under indictment by the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) on genocide charges stemming from mass killings committed in Sudan’s Darfur region. If the visa were granted, he would be the first visiting head of state to visit the United Nations in New York while under indictment by the International Court. Leaders who have been violently opposed to the U.S. like Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev were never under criminal indictment.
Perhaps the most shocking chutzpah in this case – if shocking chutzpah is not an oxymoron – is that the United States is screaming against the request, led by its new Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, a noted former journalist who wrote a famous book denouncing American apathy to genocides. What Ambassador Power fails to note is that the United States has refused to sign and ratify membership in the International Criminal Court. Many in the human rights community vividly remember the disappointment at the treaty conference in Rome when the U.S. failed to sign on because it refused to allow its citizens to be indicted and tried.
Ms. Power said that instead of the Sudanese leader’s coming to New York, “it would be more appropriate for him to present himself to the I.C.C. and travel to The Hague.” What she didn’t say was that Mr. Bashir has traveled to several countries abroad who have not signed on to the Court and are thus not obligated to arrest him.
The chutzpah of the United States’ insistence that Mr. al-Bashir is a criminal who should be tried at The Hague is that the United States is not a member of the Court. The question of whether countries that are not members are obligated to arrest those under indictment is not clear. “These are new legal waters,” says Northwestern University's David Scheffer, a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, who helped negotiate the treaty that set up the I.C.C. “What some people might regard as odious characters certainly [have] appeared on the podium. But we have not had an indicted war criminal do so.”
What is clear is that because the U.S. is not a member, it has no direction obligation. Screaming about Mr. Bashir’s request for a visa by those who refused to join the I.C.C. is showing chutzpah on top of Mr. Bashir’s chutzpah.
It should also be pointed out while we are citing examples of chutzpah, that while in this case the United States poses as the great defender of international law, in the case of Syria - even before U.N. inspectors delivered their report - President Obama unilaterally declared the Syrian government responsible for chemical attacks and also declared that the U.S. was ready to punish Syria with force even without the consent of the Security Council. Chutzpah, in this case, is unilaterally undercutting the very system you claim to defend.
Unfortunately, for the moment there is no objective way of measuring levels of chutzpah. Hopefully one day, like the mathematician Georg Cantor’s description of an infinity of infinities, we will be able to articulate levels of chutzpah. For the moment, alas, we can only observe new examples.
September 21, 2013