27 Oct Reparation for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the Rescue Aid Society: Imagining the UN Through Disney’s The Rescuers
[Paul Philipp Stewens (Twitter: @PStewens) is a master’s student of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute and holds a BA in International Relations from Technische Universität Dresden.]
“Parents need to know that The Rescuers isn’t as accessible to the youngest viewers as many other Disney features – its dark story (a suspenseful tale of child kidnapping and slavery) may be too much for sensitive preschoolers.”Review by Common Sense Media
In 1977, Disney released what could be called an unusual movie. The Rescuers is an animated feature about two mice, Bianca and Bernard, who go on a mission to rescue an orphan girl named Penny. She was kidnapped and is being forced to search the world’s largest diamond. Bianca and Bernard do not act on their own behalf, however: They are on mission in the services of the Rescue Aid Society (RAS), an international organization of mice which responds to call for help by humans. The headquarters of the RAS are located in the walls of the United Nations (UN) Headquarter in New York City; delegate mice hail from countries all over the globe and travel to the emergency meeting of the RAS in the luggage of UN diplomats. While Bianca is the Hungarian delegate, Bernard serves as a janitor at the RAS’ facilities; Bianca only choses him as a companion after the chairmouse would refuse to let her, a woman, take on the mission alone.
The Rescuers is a grim movie at times, being essentially occupied with agents of an international organization trying to rescue a child victim of human trafficking and forced labour. The movie’s villain, Madame Medusa, threatens Penny with death, and a significant part of the feature is set in the bleak Devil’s Swamps. Despite its surprising darkness for a children’s movie, The Rescuers was a huge commercial success (being re-released in movie theaters several times) and well received by critics celebrating it as the beginning of a new golden age for Disney. It also is full of details that allow connecting the movie with international affairs and international law. I will explore this connection, discuss why the creators established it, and what we can learn about images of the UN and international organizations more generally.
A Deliberate Choice
The world of international affairs and UN diplomacy is far from an obvious setting for a kids’ movie—and yet that is where we find ourselves in one of the first scenes of The Rescuers: a distant shot of the UN HQ, a revolving door through which diplomates from different countries enter, a table with the Programme des Seances in the lobby, and a loudspeaker announcement that ECOSOC will soon convene. The creators do go to some lengths in order to set the stage for the RAS by placing it in the context of “real” human international affairs.
This decision represents a deliberate deviation from the novel on which the movie is based. Margery Sharp’s 1959 book The Rescuers features an organization of mice called Prisoners’ Aid Society whose mission is to provide relief to human prisoners. With its national branches and delegates that take on missions in the field, the Prisoners’ Aid Society bears more resemblance with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not so much the UN. Walt Disney is said to have found the original plot too dark, hence the somewhat lighter storytelling and setting of the movie adaption.
The Rescue Aid Society: A Better UN?
While we still find traces of its ICRC-like roots from the novel (e.g., national delegates to the organization take on missions), the RAS is clearly modelled after the UN. It is not only the shared headquarter which links the two organizations: the delegate mice travel to the emergency meeting in the luggage of UN diplomats, and the RAS meets as a general assembly with one seat per member state and a chairmouse leading the session.
While these similarities establish the parallelism between the UN and the RAS, it is their differences which define their relationship. While a call for the ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the UN in the opening scene suggests that German unification has not taken place yet (in accordance with the historical facts), only one mouse represents Germany in the RAS general assembly. While a mouse that conforms with Russian stereotypes and greets Bernard in Russian when entering the assembly represents Latvia in the RAS, the country would not become a UN member until its independence in the early 1990s. Furthermore, the RAS pursues a decidedly anti-speciecist agenda, responding to calls for help from humans and, in the case of the organization’s legendary founder, even by a lion. The UN, on the other had, are seemingly concerned with the affairs of fellow humans and had only rather recently begun to consider environmental affairs when the movie came out.
Also, the RAS is both pragmatic and successful. According to a banner in its assembly hall, its objective is the following: “We Never Fail To Do Whats [sic] Right”. The organization prides itself upon responding to any call for help, and as Bernard and Bianca’s mission shows, their responses are crowned with success: They rescue Penny and retrieve an important cultural artifact that is handed over to the Smithsonian Institution near the end of the movie.
A unified Germany, the lack of a Soviet Union, a selfless and non-discriminatory attitude to provide relief and full success in doing so—the properties and merits of the RAS are in sharp contrast to public and especially U.S. contemporary perception of the UN. Meisler describes the 1970s and early 1980s as “the nadir [the UN’s] first fifty years.” UN Peacekeeping had failed in the Six-Day War in 1967 and the UN were pushed out of the resolution of the 1973 Yom Kippur War by the great powers. Membership of Third World countries was growing, with an overwhelming dominance in the General Assembly (UNGA) that allowed them, inter alia, to push for a new international economic order and, in cooperation with the Soviet Union, to pass Resolution 3379 (XXX) condemning zionism as a form of racism. This declaration was revoked by the UNGA in 1991 but did great damage to the UN’s reputation in the U.S. whose public already had doubts about the raison d’être of the organization to begin with.
Against this background, it seems plausible that the creators of The Rescuers devised the RAS as a better UN: an organization that effectively fulfils its humanitarian purpose—but also one in which the Soviet Union is absent, and where Arabia and Africa have one seat each; an organization whose greatest concern is which of the eager male delegates is to accompany Bianca on her mission; an organization which, indeed, “Never Fails To Do Whats Right”.
An Intellectual Playground for International Lawyers
Finally, the many accurate or near-accurate details in The Rescuers create a setting that approximates actual international affairs just enough to provide those interested in international law with a mental laboratory to playfully discuss legal questions. What if Bernard and Bianca, agents of the RAS, were killed on their mission? Would the RAS, or rather their home states, be responsible if they committed internationally wrongful acts? Does it matter that Bianca presumably has diplomatic status while Bernard is technical staff, and if so, how? Can the RAS invoke the UN-US Headquarters Agreement? Does the immunity of diplomatic bags also extend to the mice travelling in them?
None of these questions need to be answered here, although it would undoubtedly be a fun exercise. This is, however, the point I seek to emphasize: It is possible to discuss the law of international organizations, diplomatic law, and a broad range of other legal questions (the diamond that Penny is forced to search, for instance, might be considered underwater cultural heritage) within the narrative framework of The Rescuers. Its plot and setting are “authentic” enough to allow raising these questions, and open and malleable enough to infuse them with further assumptions that allow discussing the issues in one of the most accessible fora conceivable for rather technical questions of international responsibility and immunity.
The Rescuers is and remains a children’s movie. It will probably be its soundtrack, suspense, and Bianca’s and Bernard’s heroism that attract young viewers’ attention rather than the question of Reparation for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the Rescue Aid Society. Still, the movie contains an unusual amount of international law Easter Eggs for its adult (academic) audience, and more importantly, it conveys an imagination of institutionalized international cooperation. On the one hand, The Rescuers creates an imagination of the UN as a place where formality and diversity intersect. On the other hand, it imagines, in the form of the RAS, an international organization that does away with the failings and deficits of the UN in the 1970s. It undoubtedly is a product of its time and place of creation, and the vision it conveys is clearly American. While this political positionality ought to be born in mind, the efficiency and success of the RAS in implementing its mandate and achieving its objectives do give it a certain model character.
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