Madeleine Albright - opening ceremony, Annual Conference 2013

Speaking at the IBA Annual Conference in Boston on the day after alleged al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi was rendered from Libya to stand trial for the bombings of US embassies in Africa in 1998, Madeleine Albright reflected on her worst day as US Secretary of State, the day the attacks took place.

Madeleine Albright addresses the IBA Annual Conference

'During my years in office, the Balkans were a major focus, but they were not the only arena where the rule of law was on trial. My worst day as Secretary of State came 15 years ago, on 7 August 1998, when terrorist explosions struck the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds of people. Within a matter of days we had captured several suspects who led us to believe that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks.

The question for us was whether to consider this a law enforcement matter demanding a judicial response, or a military attack in which the use of armed force was justified. We decided it was both. We went ahead and prosecuted the conspirators we had in custody, but we also launched a cruise missile strike at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, failing to hit bin Laden, we think, by only a matter of hours. At the same time, we sought international help in identifying and freezing terrorist funds, and we used a combination of law enforcement and intelligence to try to prevent further attacks.

It is indeed a coincidence that yesterday in Libya al-Libi was captured and it is very clear that we always need to hold people accountable. And as Secretary Kerry has said, people cannot hide from us and the law. So I think that there will be additional questions; I’ve just been listening to the TV: some of the Libyans are saying that this was a kidnapping so this obviously will lead to additional questions and a lot of issues that we will deal with.

Urgent global concern

After 9/11, and in the years since, the threat posed by violent extremist groups has been a subject of urgent global concern, which some perceive in wholly religious terms. But this confrontation is not about beliefs, it’s about behaviour; the law does not care what people think – the law cares what people do. And, when terrorists fly airplanes into buildings or blow up a subway train or plant explosives in the middle of a crowd during the Boston marathon, they’re trying to destroy the very idea of law. We cannot let them succeed.

Out task collectively is to ensure that the guilty are held accountable, but to do so in a way that upholds the principles upon which the rule of law is rightly based. We should also be careful about using such popular but problematic terms as ‘the global war on terror’. I say this because it’s hard to wage war against a noun, and because terrorists want nothing more than to be considered warriors, when in fact, they are murderers, and I for one do not wish to do them any favours.

Following her address, Madeleine Albright took questions from the audience.

Madeleine Albright  - Q&A, full length film

Question: You’re world-renowned for your voracious appetite for news; you reportedly read over 30 newspapers a day from around the world. You’ll be aware of the little local difficulties we’ve had with our newspapers in England. Would you share your thoughts and comments on that in the larger scheme of free expression? 

Madeleine Albright: I am very troubled by some of the things that are happening in the media generally – in terms of having taken this incredible medium that provides the possibility of information and turning it into scandal-mongering or eavesdropping, or a number of various aspects to it – and for me, what is absolutely essential in the functioning of a democratic society is for the media to in fact have an adversarial role with the government; that is part of what it’s supposed to do, which is why in this country it’s called the fourth estate. But also to do it in a responsible way, where people know what they can trust and not trust. I find it less comfortable to talk about the British media than our own, and I think that they in many ways have let down our population, and partially because some of them, especially the radio and television, in many ways is just a collection of facts from one group or another, not a balanced view, despite the fact that some say they’re balanced. And what happens is that people only then listen to what it is that they already believe, and get strengthened in it. I personally, when I’m driving in Washington, listen to Rush Limbaugh, and it is quite amazing that I have not run over somebody or been arrested, yelling at my own car. But I do think it’s important to try to get other views, but I also think that the media in any country has a responsibility to provide facts and to give an overall view.

‘When terrorists fly airplanes into buildings or blow up a subway train or plant explosives in the middle of a crowd during the Boston marathon, they’re trying to destroy the very idea of law. We cannot let them succeed’

Madeleine Albright
Former US Secretary of State

Q: When you look at this turbulent world that we now live in, with all the experience you’ve had, is there anything that above all keeps you awake at night?

MA: Well, yes, many. I’ve lived through a pretty turbulent time in my life, but I am a child that has not only lived through World War II but also in the post-World War II period, where, in fact, there was the creation of a lot of institutions, which were supposed to deal with the turbulence, that would allow us to have different views, to deal with the problem of nuclear proliferation, to deal with issues of poverty –obviously the United Nations [UN] and a variety of regional organisations.

What troubles me at the moment is that there is a real question as to whether the organisations work, whether they are properly suited for the 21st century. And the reason that I say that is that they are based on the concept of the nation state, which is something that we all grew up with. There is something new in the world today, which is non-state actors. And non-state actors are not just the terrorists. Non-state actors are also businesses and non-governmental organisations, and a variety of different stakeholders. And the non-state actors are never at the table, and I think we haven’t quite figured out how to adjust the institutional structure in order to try to figure out how to make it work for the 21st century, because the problems are there.

‘I think the bottom line is, when a law has been presented and passed by congress, signed by the president, it’s a little hard to keep saying that it hasn’t happened’

One of the books that I wrote was called Memo to the President Elect, and at a time I didn’t know who the president was going to be. I did, in the end, give it to President Obama, and I inscribed it, ‘With the audacity to hope that this book might be useful’. And I in fact had five big umbrella issues that I thought would have to be dealt with. One was the proliferation of nuclear weapons, another was terrorism – how to fight terrorism and to make sure that the worst weapons didn’t get into the hands of the worst people. Then there was the gap between the rich and the poor; in the world there are fewer poor people now in absolute terms, primarily because of what the Chinese have done, but the gap between the rich and the poor has widened – and thanks to technology the poor know what the rich have. Then there was the whole issue of energy and environment and pandemic disease. And then I really thought that it was important to restore the good name of democracy after it was militarised in Iraq. Those continue to be my concerns, but my main concern is that the system isn’t working to deal with it.

Q: Is one of the problems the UN Security Council?

MA: Yes, but that is one of the issues. …I was at the UN, and it’s very interesting. The Security Council initially had 11 members, then it was expanded to 15; and there were questions as to whether in fact its permanent members should be expanded. And so at the time that President Clinton was in office, we suggested that Germany and Japan be added as permanent members.
I hope I’m not about to insult some people here, but the first country to come to me was Italy, and they said; this is outrageous, we lost the war too, which is not a great campaign slogan. So, then what would happen is that I would go – at any given time there were five Europeans on the Security Council – and I would go to a European ambassador and say, can you help me on X vote, and he’d say, ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t, the EU does not yet have a common position.’ And then two days later I’d go back to the same person, I’d say, can you help me now, and he’d say, ‘No, the EU does have a common position,’ which means, frankly, that the EU should have one permanent seat; but I can’t visualise either the British or the French giving up their seats. So, it’s a Rubik’s cube aspect of it, and it’ll be interesting to see how it works on this whole Syria issue. What happened also to Kosovo: we knew that the Russians would veto it, and we took it out of the Security Council.

Q: I have a real concern about the rule of law in the United States. We have a Supreme Court that often, when interpreting the constitution, in my opinion reads into it things that clearly were never intended when the provisions were originally adopted. President Obama has, with respect to certain laws, decided not to enforce them because he considers them unconstitutional, and now we’re having the legislation that’s being delayed by the executive branch, even though there’s nothing in the law that would permit the executive branch to do that. I’m wondering if you have similar concerns about the rule of law in the United States?


‘The non-state actors are never at the table, and I think we haven’t quite figured out how to adjust the institutional structure in order to try to figure out how to make it work for the 21st century’’

MA: Well, I personally have concerns about the Supreme Court, and I do think that some of the rulings that they’ve made recently have been very troublesome in terms of some of the aspects of our democracy, but you’re going to have Steven Breyer here, you can talk to him about it… I’m not a lawyer, but I am concerned about certain aspects of how our system is operating. I think that I have so believed in this system of government and our checks and balances, and the way that laws are written, created, legislated, and then implemented by the executive branch, and I think that there is a disconnect going on. It’s hard not to be political at this moment, but I think the bottom line is, when a law has been presented and passed by congress, signed by the president, it’s a little hard to keep saying that it hasn’t happened. And so I think that there are a lot of questions at this moment.


Q: What do you think about immigration control? I think it’s the worst form of protectionism, and against human rights, because all human beings are animals and should be allowed to go across the world without any borders. In 50 years time we can see that we have a borderless world?

MA: Well, let me just say: I’m an immigrant. And I happen to believe that people should be able to live where they can, and earn a living and at what they can. It is not something that is only America’s fault; there are other countries that have very tight immigration rules. What I am worried about is also what I call now the international homeless: refugees. People that are driven out of their countries, that have no place to be. And I, this summer, was in Jordan and went to the camp of Syrian refugees – which is now the fourth largest city in Jordan – where people do not know how to live where they’re going back, and so there’s the combination of the right to be able to move, and the other to be driven out of your country where you have no place to live.

Q: In spite of 2014 approaching, still the rule of law is in question. And you just mentioned about Syria: they will move when there is President Assad using the chemical weapon, but 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the war – nothing happened. So, how can you explain this dual standard?

MA: This is obviously the question that the international community is dealing with now. I think I’m going to take a little while to answer this, because I have spent some time on it. One of the things I have done in my post-official life is sit on a task force that dealt with prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity – [which] came out of my own experience dealing with the Balkans. And so one of the things that happened was that we suggested that in the American system that we have something called an atrocities prevention board within the National Security Council, that would give early warning of various problems. It’s one of the first times that I’ve seen something from a task force actually become an institutional structure. After that I asked, along with an interesting man, Rich Williamson, who had been Governor Romney’s Foreign Policy Adviser, to have a task force on a new concept called the responsibility to protect.

‘I personally have concerns about the Supreme Court, and I do think that some of the rulings that they’ve made recently have been very troublesome in terms of some of the aspects of our democracy’

At the United Nations I had watched the evolution of peacekeeping from not just where you go into a country once peace had been arranged to keep the parties apart, but actively be involved in trying to help the peace process go along. And then the Canadians, who are truly responsible international citizens, came up with the concept of human security. And that then evolved into this concept of the responsibility to protect, that if a sovereign leader of a country not only does not protect his people, but is actually killing them, isn’t it the responsibility of the international community to do something? So, accordingly, what I think is that the international community should have been looking some time ago at what was going on in Syria. I think what has made this issue particularly complicated is the real problem with the responsibility to protect, is who enforces this? Now, does it have to come according to the general assembly resolution; you do have to have security council approval, so you get yourself into kind of a cul-de-sac, and so I think the international community is trying to deal with this. I do think that the chemical weapons part is a whole level of horror that went on in Syria that needs to be dealt with, but I also think that the international community does have responsibility to do something about the people that have been killed by other means, or have been pushed out of their own country.

Q: Can the United States though, play this leadership role in combating immunity and supporting accountability when they’re not a state party to the International Criminal Court?

MA: Well, I happen to think, yes. Let me just explain a little bit where I thought that it was kind of a natural outgrowth of the war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and when I was Secretary of State, David Scheffer, who worked with me, was our negotiator in Rome on the international criminal court… I regretted that we were not able to be a part of it early on. And part of it has to do with the fact that the United States had many responsibilities abroad, primarily with our military. What has been missed in this whole story is that it is possible if you’ve got a functional legal system of your own, not to submit things to the International Criminal Court; despite maybe the second question, I do think on the whole we have a functioning legal system. So, I think there has been more recognition of the fact that the ICC is moving along; the Bush administration did in fact think it had a role; so I do think, technically it may be difficult, but I think in terms of support for the concepts, I think, yes, we should.'