The Devil's Advocate and Free Speech

In October 2011, anti-Israeli activists attempted to get a warrant issued for the arrest of Tzipi Livni, former Israeli foreign minister and leader of the Kadima party, who was visiting London to meet with William Hague, the British foreign minister, to discuss negotiations for ending the conflict between Israel and Palestinians.  The warrant was to be based on the alleged involvement of Livni in the Israeli response to incessant shelling from Gaza while Livni was foreign minister during Operation Cast Lead, December 2008 to January 2009.  The intended warrant was part of the continuing campaign to demonize the state of Israel.  Now, these activists as well as those in Britain genuinely concerned with human rights face the problem of how to react to a forthcoming visit to London of an individual associated with real demons.

To this point, no protest has been registered by any activist concerning the invitation to the French-Vietnamese lawyer Jacques Vergès to take part in a debate with Martii Koskenniemi, a distinguished Finnish professor of international law, on "International justice: between impunity and show trials," to be held on February 3, 2012 at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London.

In his great book, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill recognized "the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion and freedom of the expression of opinion."  The conversation between Livni and Hague can be seen to exemplify Mill's axiom.  It is difficult to envisage how any "mental well-being" can ensue from the utterances of Vergès at a serious academic debate at SOAS, a college that was once graced by the teaching of Bernard Lewis.

Vergès is an 86-year-old celebrated, flamboyant Parisian lawyer, an outrageous provocateur, a showman popularly known as "The Devil's Advocate."  This nickname stems from his well-publicized career of defending Nazi war criminals, terrorists, and Holocaust-deniers.  Among his clients have been the following: Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, who was responsible for over 4,000 deaths and 7,500 deportations in France, including the rounding up in Izieu, near Lyon, of 44 Jewish children who were sent to their death, and the torture to death of the French resistance leader Jean Moulin in 1943; Roger Garaudy, the ex-leftist who converted to Islam, became a Holocaust-denier, and was sentenced in a French court for denying crimes against humanity and for racial defamation; the murderous Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal; Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's deputy prime minister; Khiue Samphan, former head of the Communist regime in Cambodia, who is alleged to have  been responsible for the killing of two million in the Killing Fields between 1975 and 1979; Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, the former leader of the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction, who was involved in the murders of Colonel Charles Ray, the U.S. military attaché, and an Israeli diplomat in Paris in 1982, and the assassination attempt on the U.S. Consul in Strasbourg; and Laurant Gbagbo, former president of the Ivory Coast, who since November 2011 has been in the custody of the International Criminal Court on charges of murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, corruption, and responsibility for death squads and mass graves.  Vergès in the past offered to represent Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, and more recently has offered his services to Saif Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator.  In addition, he plans to sue President Nicolas Sarkozy for crimes against humanity because of French intervention in Libya in April and May 2011.

Vergès has been the mouthpiece of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine which hijacked an El Al plane in 1969.  He minimized the nature of the genocide by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, 1970-75; instead, he argued, people died of starvation and disease caused by the embargo policy of the United States.  He spoke of his friendship with Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), as well as with the Red Army Faction in Germany, and particularly with the enigmatic François Genoud, a Swiss banker.  Genoud had financial and organizational links with the Nazi leadership during World War II, helped the Nazis steal gold from Jewish victims that he stored in Swiss banks, and was a confidant of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the pro-Nazi leader of Palestinian Muslims.  After the war, Genoud helped raise millions of dollars for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); helped finance the FLN, the Algerian Liberation Movement; paid for the defense of Adolf Eichmann and Klaus Barbie; published the writings of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Martin Bormann; financed Arab terrorist groups; and befriended David Irving, the British Holocaust-denier.

Vergès claims not to be anti-Semitic, nor to favor terrorist acts, but his associations with real demonic figures and his own utterances make this questionable.  In what was perhaps a playful interview in Der Spiegel on November 21, 2008, he said, among other things, that "[m]onsters do not exist, just as there is no such thing as absolute evil[.] ... What was so shocking about Hitler the "monster" is that he loved his dog so much and kissed the hand of his secretaries."  In rendering a judgment on him, one might consider the extent of his sagacity by another of his utterances: "One of my principles is to have no principles."

Vergès has always craved the spotlight.  The question is whether he should be allowed to shine in an academic setting in London.  One can recognize that the nature of an offense and the right to legal representation are exclusive.  One can also admit that defense lawyers may have values different from those of a defendant.  Yet the nature of Vergès's activities suggests he may share, or at the very least look benignly on, the values of those he has defended.  His defense of Abdallah in 1982 concentrated on denouncing American and Israeli policies in the Middle East.  Later, in 2007, he castigated the U.S. for alleged pressure on the French court that had decided not to release Abdallah from prison; he urged the court "to show our condescending American friends that France is not a submissive girl."

How much can a defender of Holocaust-deniers, brutal Nazis, and murderers really contribute to a serious discussion of international justice?  The School of Oriental and Asian Studies might rethink its invitation.  The anti-Israeli activists might also ponder, if they are concerned for sober and reasonable discourse, the vast difference between Livni, a politician in a democratic country, and Vergès, who has been paid to represent Nazis and anti-Semites.

Michael Curtis is a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University and the author of the forthcoming book Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the international community.