In 1984, the world was stunned by pictures of ordinary people lying dead in the streets of the town of Bhopal, in India. The Union Carbide factory had released a deadly gas that killed 3,800 people outright and caused devastating health problems for many thousands more – including birth defects in children whose mothers were only babies at the time. It took just five years for the financial settlement to be finalised in the courts – during which time some emergency support had been provided by the company and the government , together with other charitable and medical organisations. And now, finally, 26 years later, the criminal proceedings have at last produced a guilty verdict. No sentences mind – just a verdict.
But it’s not much of a verdict, given the decades victims had to wait. Charges of culpable homicide were downgraded to ‘negligence’. Only 8 men were convicted of the original 9 – one had died in the intervening years. More importantly for the survivors, none of the American senior management ever responded to summons and appeared to answer charges levelled against them. The downgraded charges mean the convicted men will only spend a few years in prison – for killing almost 4,000 people!
When the British withdrew from India, they left behind the infrastructure of empire: an essential railway system, schools, commerce, bureaucracy – and a legal system that had essentially been set up to provide for British business interests rather than the local people. Nevertheless, India was provided a legacy of the rule of law and a justice system that was considerably better than some former colonial outposts.
Today, India is the second most populous country in the world, with economic growth sitting only behind the giant of China. The Indian middle class has never been so well off, so well-educated and so determined to bring success back home. So why does it take 26 years to get a guilty verdict on downgraded charges?
The victims of Bhopal aren’t part of the wealthy middle-class enjoying new-found Western luxuries, and this isn’t just about poverty and providing food and work for people, or clean water or health. It’s about providing one of the most important structures of civilization. How are these people ever to achieve any sense of justice when it takes 26 years for a verdict to be reached? Why would these people ever put their trust in the law when this is what happens? Why would anyone?
And I’m not just talking about India, here. Just this week in Australia, we’re hearing about a boy who was wrongly charged with rape and the awful mistakes made by the police to put him in that position in the first place. It took the boy and his family more than twelve months to free themselves from the nightmare – but not before all were permanently scarred by their brush with a system of law that should work a hell of a lot better than it does. Then, to top off a week filled with reports of one rape after another, the nephew of a Somalian dictator convicted of raping a 14 year-old girl, managed to avoid jail in Melbourne. He confessed to the crime and yet doesn’t serve any time. How does that work?
I don’t want to do away with the law. I just want it to work the way it’s supposed to, so that people can have confidence in it consistently providing them with the protection it claims to. If there is no protection under the law, then what is it for? The law – or the legal system, itself – shouldn’t ever need to be defended. No matter what country we’re in, the legal system is supposed to be defending us.