What’s in a Name? How the Words We Use Undermine Global Justice

Justin Hosman-SMby Justin Hosman

Attorneys spend three years in law school and a lifetime in law practice honing a unique and fascinating skill. This skill involves understanding a set of facts and then masterfully creating a story with those facts that allows the reader to see the client through a positive lens. Carefully chosen words carry the power of persuasion. International law is replete with carefully worded treaties, agreements, and domestic statutes. The persuasive power of words is no less present in an international agreement than it is in a well-written legal memo. In fact, the persuasive nature of words codified in international regulations and agreements is even more powerful as a result of repetition. Where the memo is only read a few times at most, the rules will be read far more often and will be closely scrutinized. Even more impactful than the agreement itself will be the names that we give them. The names we apply to international criminal activity may be the only contact the layperson will have with the given subject. These names are constantly repeated in the news and parroted by talking heads. These names shape public opinion and, therefore, are incredibly important. In many cases these names constitute the public’s first and only link to the crime. This blog will unpack the consequences of names that have been given to international crimes.

Sexual slavery (forced prostitution), slavery (forced labor), forced surrogacy, and black market organ sales all fall under one term in international law, Human trafficking. Human trafficking is the term that has been established to represent these crimes against the most basic human rights. Human trafficking is a booming business for many countries and it is not in their immediate best economic interest to stop this kind of criminal activity. This sort of activity is also still culturally acceptable in many nations. Therefore it is not in their immediate best economic interest to craft labels for these crimes with the horrific words that so easily lend themselves to describing the corresponding acts. The words “human” and “Trafficking” fail to represent to the public the crimes they represent. These words undermine justice for the sex slave, the slave, the forced surrogate, and those who are not completely whole as a result of the black market organ trade.

In times of peace and war the United States, among many other countries, routinely kills specific individuals who fall outside of their jurisdiction. These killings are carried out in a number of different ways and are done without a trial. The name that has been attached to this form of death sentence is “targeted killings”. This is the kind of skilled word choice mentioned previously. The term, “targeted killing” softens the crude nature of the act it is meant to describe. Moreover, it does not speak to the awful moral ambiguity and anguish that follows when someone is executed without trial. These words undermine justice at the level of due process and create a climate of eternal war.

The United States recently participated in the acts of waterboarding (simulated drowning), hypothermia, stress positions, and physical abuse against prisoners. Prisoners were subjected to what the United States referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques”. The term used to describe what these prisoners experienced is outrageously inferior to the acts that it is meant to describe and represent. This is an obvious attempt to mislead through language because these men were not just interrogated, but tortured. Torture is outlawed in international circles. The United States tortured prisoners and sought to bury that fact with words meant to pacify the world and citizens of the United States. The words, “enhanced interrogation techniques” undermine justice for the prisoners who suffered at the hands of American interrogators. These words provide support for the United States to undermine the rule of law. Furthermore those words corrode the legitimacy of the United States among other nations.

There are people who commit crimes on in the international arena and on a grand scale. They seek publicity and attention through these acts. They seek to hijack established mediums of communication and media through the commission of horrific acts. The international community has chosen to call these people terrorists. The word terrorist has the effect of striking fear into those who hear it and for some reason it seems made for Hollywood. Why would the international community give such a sexy name to people that are seeking attention and airtime through the commission of atrocities? Perhaps, it is because those who are giving the names do not seek to soften the term but to sharpen it, to make it more exciting than it previously was. Effectively, the world community has provided a name for these criminals that accelerates their agenda. Justice is undermined when the international community gives these criminals “street credit” by giving them an exciting name. Justice is undermined when the threat of terrorism is made larger than life for political expediency. Domestic justice is undermined as privacy is usurped for the sake of safety. Justice is undermined abroad as these groups are given far more legitimacy than they deserve because of a simple name.

What’s in a name? Names will have the first impression. Names will carry the power of repetition. Names describe the nature of the things. And, most importantly, names will shape the attitudes and opinions of the public. Names can be used to minimize the suffering of countless individuals across the globe or they can be used to shed light on and combat the crimes that are taking place daily. It is imperative that the global community takes full responsibility for the power of its words. Also it is of vital importance that the global community stop manipulating words for evil ends because, by definition, there is not justice where there is manipulation and deceit.

Justin Hosman is from Brigham City, Utah and is a 2L at S.J. Quinney College of Law. Hosman’s entry to the GlobalJustinceBlog is part of an assignment for the course International Criminal Law, taught by Professor Wayne McCormack.