AEGEE International Politics Journal

Whom the law protects

Written by Ivan Bielik (member of IPWG)

Last days have brought into the light interesting issue of the fundamental clash between national security and civil liberty. One needs to examine the role of law in the society in deciding about this issue, because the law system creates a backbone of society we live in and is essential part of it. Before going into a detail, what is then the definition of law? There are, obviously, many compelling ones. I find as appropriate definition the statement that it is a set of rules which govern in society and are backed by coercive power of the state. In fact, legal system should guard and cherish social order and justice in the state. Thus, the purpose of the law is to regulate relations in the society and protect the citizens from unlawful actions. This, however, begs the question if law serves to and protects everyone in practice.

To answer this very broad and general question I have to move from individual cases to general conclusion. If my conclusion is backed by specific, real examples, it will be more reasonable and mature. So what are these particular examples? Obviously, recent cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden shed some light on my question, even though they are diverse in acts (basic clash between security and civil liberty is still present). They are still useful for the analysis.

Bradley Manning, American soldier recently sentenced for 35 years of prison, leaked about 700 thousand documents to WikiLeaks. Among leaked documents there was a footage of American helicopter crew killing unarmed civilians (two Reuters reporters among them) and laughing about it. On the other hand, Edward Snowden, granted asylum in Russia, revealed information about surveillance practice of the United States through PRISM. Both men broke the law they were obliged to uphold in their office, that is undisputable. But this fact is not sufficient in order to condemn their behaviour. Sometimes one has to break the law when seeking truth or justice which legal system intends to disclose. Similar analogy can be made with contracts where the fact of consent does not mean you have obligation to uphold it when the benefits are unequally distributed between contracting parties.

My point, therefore, is as follows. The legal system (in this case American one) as it is now does not treat on equal basis whistle-blowing activities with national security issues. Of course, protection of its citizens is one of the most fundamental role of state. On the other hand, powerful state bureaucracy is limited by civil liberties of citizens and is still accountable for its conduct be it either on battlefield or at homeland. One has to find a balance between security and liberty. For now, security issue prevails over liberty (The Economist named its weekly issue Liberty’s lost decade [August 3rd 2013]) .

How can I then explain that the enemy in the NSA scandal is not those who are spying on us and lying about it, but the one who tells you about it? How is it possible that the criminals are not the soldiers who murder innocent civilians and laugh about it or the politicians who sent them to war, but the young man who exposes their crimes? (For these intriguing questions I am grateful to The Guardian) State machinery intends to picture itself as the one that best qualified to know what is in general public interest even though public sometimes reasons differently. I believe that it is in high public interest to know how citizens are governed by politicians and what their representatives are exactly doing. Without whistle-blowing activities and freedom of press this condition will never be fulfilled.

Back to my general question again. After considering two individual cases of Snowden and Manning, I came to the conclusion that the law does not protect the security of citizens as such but the security of the state machinery. Therefore, the law does not serve to everyone on equal basis but aims to protect interests of tiny group who is in charge of the state. I hope that in the future we will be able to find a new balance between national security and civil liberties in order to hold the powerful accountable to public scrutiny.



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  1. Hei

    I would like to object a bit to your conclusion that the law serves the few ones in power, or as you stated it: “to protect interests of tiny group who is in charge of the state”.
    On the other hand you are right when you claim “that the law does not protect the security of citizens as such but the security of the state machinery”. Law is made for prevailing order, not justice. And since the state is the one prevailing law, it is just logical that this holds vice versa.
    However, a tiny group in charge of the state is not necessarily supported or even protected by any means of law – the thing is: They just defy it. Entering the highest circle of power people know each other. One does not need to believe in conspiracies concerning such funny things as “Bilderberg” circles and so on – it is just natural. But this also means that using your full entitlement – say, as a judge – will mean that you step on someone’s feet, maybe of a friend.
    (You don’t step on a friend’s or a mighty person’s feet, do you? )
    So I would not say that law does particularly serve the elite, it just doesn’t apply to it (at least not on full scale). However, the outcome is almost (?) the same to the situation you scetched.

    Just my 2 cents.

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