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Our Conscience Must be Our Monitor: Returning to the International Rule of Law…with Humility

Our Conscience Must be Our Monitor: Returning to the International Rule of Law…with Humility

19.11.2020 | David M. Crane NOVEMBER 18, 2020 05:52:18 PM Edited by: Khushali Mahajan | Rajiv Gandhi National U. of Law, IN | 67

The United States, long a bastion of law, has a moment. That moment is its “return to the fold”, so to speak, regarding the rule of law and supporting human rights. Elihu Root, a former Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt, stated that at the heart of US foreign policy “our conscience must be our monitor”. At first blush this is a bit trite, but upon reflection, in the end, our foreign policy’s “bright red thread” has been our conscience and the world has admired us for this.

For the past few years the United States has been adrift without conscience, the world stumbling forward with little moral direction. Dirty, little wars have proliferated, strongmen emboldened, the international order of peace and security threatened. With a new administration, the time is right for the United States to return as that “bright and shining city on a hill”, and re-engage in restoring the international rule of law.

It’s been a dark period for nations, NGO’s, and other organizations, as well as individuals who have worked hard at improving upon the seventy-five-year world order created after World War II. It is fitting that on the anniversaries of the founding of the United Nations, as well as the beginning of the world’s first international tribunals seeking justice for the destruction of so many innocents in Europe and the Far East, that a new administration begins to meet the many challenges ahead created in large part by the Trump administration.

Rightfully, the United States will have to focus immediately on the pandemic here and abroad, restoring a balanced and scientifically-based approach to stopping the spread of COVID-19, saving lives and building a cornerstone by which its economy may recover and grow. However, restoring a balance to international peace and security under the rule of law and a respect for the dignity of man under an established human rights paradigm, is imperative also, over time.

The incoming Biden administration has already laid down a marker for returning the United States to the fold in a way that is clear and measured and it is hoped with humility. Over these past four years the world has adjusted and moved on, seeking its own path without the United States. It will be important that this return be with our “hat in hand”, looking to allies and friends for assistance, seeking to offer help, guidance, and support to the international concept of the rule of law in a way that does not offend. Humility is a difficult concept for a proud nation, yet it is critical for our permanent return to the United Nations paradigm we helped create.

During this transition, some initial thoughts regarding this return “to the fold” are that the United States appoint a distinguished and respected ambassador to the United Nations. Additionally, the United States should seek to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council and again appointing an experienced and renowned ambassador. Another important action would be to rebuild the Atrocity Prevention Board system within the Executive Office of the President and ensure appointments to key posts in the State and Defense departments are made with persons of note and experience in the fields of atrocity prevention.

Another important signal the United States must send is to the world’s strongmen, who have thrived under the outgoing administration, that their actions will be closely scrutinized and monitored. They will have to earn the respect of the United States by actions that support the rule of law. No more “winks and nods”, no more passes, only words and deeds that promote international peace and security will be acceptable. It goes without saying that the United States should also return to various international organizations and re-subscribe to various accords involving the environment, free trade, and world health. Making the United States great can only come from being a stable and supportive participant in the global village.

Again, Elihu Root, stated: “Size alone is not enough to make a country great. A country must be great in its ideals, it must be great-hearted; it must be noble; it must despise and reject all smallness and meanness; it must be faithful in its word; it must keep the faith of treaties; it must be faithful to its mission of civilization in order that it shall be truly great.” This outlook should be how we return, with humility, yet with determination to restore world order and lead by example. This will not be immediate, but a patient movement forward must happen, taking appropriate steps to shore up our ability to face down the beast of impunity, which has been ravenously nibbling at the edges of civilization these past several years.

This is an exciting, even an amazing time at so many levels. Extraordinary moments require extraordinary action, decisions, and leadership. Following our national conscience, the United States, under a Biden administration, has that strong ability, to return us and to lead us back into a United Nations paradigm of international peace and security. The US Army has a phrase that is apt here: “lead, follow, or get out of the way”. The United States will humbly lead once again and for those strongmen, you best get out of the way.

David M. Crane is the founding Chief Prosecutor, Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is also the founder of the Global Accountability Network that houses the Syrian, Yemeni, and Venezuelan Accountability Projects.


Suggested citation: David M. Crane, Our Conscience must be our Monitor: Returning to the International Rule of Law…with humility, JURIST – Professional Commentary, November 18, 2020,

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