By Gemma Cruz Araneta
The prologue of Saul Hofileña’s latest book, International Law, is discordantly funny for such an intimidating opus. It uses a German legend, “a thousand times retold” about the Schildbürgers of Helm, a town in Germany. They were reputed to be the most learned and wisest men in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were so wise that monarchs and emperors sought their counsel, so they were constantly travelling from kingdom to kingdom, and to distant empires, leaving behind their forlorn spouses and children.
One fine day, in a royal courthouse where the Schildbürgers were about to mete Solomonic justice, a travel-weary courier arrived with letters from their wives demanding that they return immediately to Helm. Alarmed by the urgency of the letters, they galloped all the way home only to find their city in shambles and their manors in disrepair. Because of such tragic circumstances, they never again wanted to leave their beloved Helm. But, how could they refuse the summons of kings and emperors? In those days, it was not the wise thing to do.
That was when the Schildbürgers decided to play the role of fools. They rebuilt the Helm townhall but forgot to put windows; then they collected a lot of empty sacks with which to capture sunlight for the darkened townhall. Salt was a rare commodity then, but instead of mining or quarrying it, they planted the little they had left, saying that it would blossom like wheat.
Eventually, they lost their royal clientele who were dismayed by rumors about their weird behavior. The most absurd story was about an animal they had bought from an itinerant traveller; the Schildbürgers said it was a dog and treated it like one, but it was a cat. The feline began to climb trees; chase mice, scratch furniture, and its eyes glowed in the dark.
The Schildbürgers seemed terrified of their pet cat so they burnt their homes and when the rest of Helm caught fire, they boarded the nearest ship – the ship of fools—and sailed away, to the four cardinal points. That is why there are fools everywhere.
What an incongruous prologue. What is the connection between the Schildbürger’s ship of fools and international law? — I could not help but ask the author. “Quite intimate,” Atty. Hofileña riposted, “International law teaches us how to rid ourselves of village fools who can lead us to perdition, such as the fools that led mankind to two world wars. The Schildbürgers had a fleet so there are many ships with fools still waiting to be unladed.”
My mind was boggled; was he alluding to universal jurisdiction? Barristers can be so oblique when they want to. I turned to the chapter “Universal Jurisdiction” (Pages 321-326) which begins this way: “The occurrence of numerous crimes against humanity in the 20th century gave rise to the practice of universal jurisdiction, a practice which ensures génocidaires that there will be no safe havens that will shield them from their crimes…a person who has committed crimes against humanity in Mexico, for example, may be apprehended in France and then tried in Singapore, even if he is a national of Germany. The reason for this unusual exercise of jurisdiction is because a crime against humanity or a war crime committed by the accused is against all mankind, so all mankind has the right to bring him to justice.”
He cited the cases against Adolf Eichmann who was hiding in Argentina and Augusto Pinochet of Chile who was extradited by Spain when he was in a hospital in London. Hofileña wrote: “Although the British Home Secretary allowed him to return to Chile, the actions of the Spanish magistrate demonstrated the right of nations to render judgment on persons who have committed crimes against humanity, even if said person is not a citizen of the country whose jurisdiction is being invoked, or even if he has not committed the crimes in the jurisdiction of the country where he will be tried.” Even non-lawyers will find this book riveting and terribly instructive.