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A Moral Revolution? Reflections on President Obama’s Visit to Hiroshima

5 Jun

There is no doubt that President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima this May crossed some thresholds hitherto taboo. Above all the visit was properly heralded as the first time a sitting American president has dared such a pilgrimage, which has already been critically commented upon by patrioteers in America who still think that the Japanese deserved such a punishment for initiating the war or believed that only such ‘shock and awe’ could induce the Japenese to surrender without a costly invasion of the mainland. As well many in Asia believe that Obama by the visit is unwittingly letting Japan off the accountability hook for its seemingly unrepentant record of atrocities throughout Asia, especially given the perception that the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is doing his conservative best to reinvigorate Japanese nationalism, and even revive imperial ambitions.

 

Obama is a gifted orator who excels in finding the right words for the occasion, and in Hiroshima his rhetoric soared once more. There he noted “[t]echnological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of the atom requires a moral revolution as well.” Such stirring words would seem to be a call to action, especially when reinforced by a direct challenge: “..among nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Obama at Prague in 2009, shortly after being sworn in as president, set forth an inspiring vision along the same lines, yet the small print there and now makes us wonder whether his heart and head are truly aligned. The words flow with grace and even passion, but where are the deeds?

 

As in Prague, Obama expressed the cautionary sentiment in Hiroshima that “[w]e may not realize this goal in my lifetime.” At which point Obama associates himself with the stabilizing agenda of arms control, reducing the size of the stockpile, making the weapons less obtainable by ‘fanatics,’ and implementing nonproliferation goals. Apparently, neither Obama nor the media take note of the tension between eliminating the weaponry and these proposals designed to stabilize the nuclear weapons environment by making it more reliably subject to prudent and rational policies of control. Yet at the same time making proposals to eliminate the weaponry seem less needed, and even at risk of threatening the stability so carefully constructed over the course of decades.

 

The real reason for skepticism about Obama’s approach is his unexplained reasons to defer the abolition of nuclear weaponry to the distant future. When Obama declares that a world without nuclear weapons is not likely to happen in his lifetime without telling us why he is changing his role from an advocate of the needed ‘moral revolution’ so as to achieve the desired political transformation to that of being a subtle endorser of the nuclear status quo. Of course, Obama may be right that negotiating nuclear disarmament will not be easy or quick, but what is the argument against trying, why defer indefinitely?

 

The global setting seems as favorable as it is likely to get. We live at a time when there are no fundamental cleavages among leading sovereign states, all of whom seek to benefit from a robust world economy and to live together without international wars. It would seem to be an overall situation in which dramatic innovations of benefit to the entire world would seem politically attractive. In such an atmosphere why could not Obama have said at Hiroshima, or seven years earlier at Prague, “that during the Cold War people dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons, but the tensions, distrust, and rivalry precluded a reliable disarming process, but now conditions are different. There are no good reasons not to convert dreams of a world without nuclear weapons into a carefully monitored and verified disarmament process, and there are many important reasons to try to do so.” What holds Obama back? Why does he not table a proposal or work with other nuclear governments to produce a realistic timetable to reach nuclear zero?

 

Worse than the seeming absence of what the great theologian, Paul Tillich, called ‘the courage to be’ is the worrisome evidence of double dealing—eloquent words spoken to warn us of the menace of nuclearism coupled with deeds that actually strengthen the hold of nuclearism on the human future. How else should we interpret by plans of the U.S. Government to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years for the modernization and further development of the existing nuclear weapons arsenal, including provocative plans to develop nuclear weapons with potential battlefield, as opposed to deterrent, missions? Such plans are provocative because they weaken inhibitions on use and tempt other governments to emulate the United States so as offset feared new vulnerabilities to threat and attack. What stands out is the concreteness of the deeds reinforcing the nuclear established order and the abstractness of the words challenging that same order.

 

Beyond this, while calling for a moral revolution, Obama seems at the same time to give his blessings to nuclear energy despite its profound moral shortcomings. Obama views nuclear energy as a contribution to reducing carbon emissions in relation to global warming concerns and as a way to sell nuclear technology abroad and at the same time satisfy the energy goals of countries, such as India, in the global South. What is not acknowledged by Obama is that this nuclear energy technology is extremely dangerous and on balance detrimental in many of the same ways as nuclear weapons, prone to accidents of the sort associated with the incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, subject to the hazards of accumulating and disposing of nuclear wastes, vulnerable to nuclear terrorism, and creating the technological capacity for the development of the weapons in a series of additional states.

 

Obama made a point of announcing before visiting Hiroshima that there would be no apology for the attacks by the United States. Clearly, Obama was unwilling to enter a domain that in America remains inflamed by antagonistic beliefs, interpretations, and priorities. There is a scholarly consensus that the war would have soon ended without an invasion or the atomic bomb, but this thesis continues to be challenged by veterans and others who think that the bomb saved American lives, or at minimum, ended the captivity of captured soldiers far sooner than would have been the case without the attacks.

 

In fairness, Obama did acknowledge the unspeakable tragedy for Japanese civilians that experienced the Hiroshima bomb, and he showed real empathy for survivors (hibakusha) who were there in the front rows when he spoke in Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, but he held back from saying the use of the bomb was wrong, even the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Obama’s emphasis, instead, was on working together to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. In this sense, Obama was indirectly legitimating the impunity that was accorded to the victors after World War II, which contrasted with the punitive measures of accountability used to deal with the crimes committed by the surviving leaders of defeated Japan and Germany. The main value of an apology is to bring a degree of closure to those directly and indirectly victimized by those terrible, events that took place more than 70 years ago. By so doing the United States would have moved a bit closer to suspending its self-serving insistence on impunity and this would have withdrawn geopolitical legitimacy from the weaponry.

 

There is something disturbing about America’s unwillingness to live up to the full horror of its past actions even while making a never again pledge. In another recent development that is freighted with similar moral ambiguities, former Senator Bob Kerrey was named the first Chair of the Board of the new Fulbright Vietnam University, a laudable joint educational project of the two countries partly funded by the U.S. Congress, despite his apparent involvement in a shameful atrocity committed during the war. The incident occurred on February 25, 1969 in the village of Thang Phong where a unit of Navy SEALS was assigned the task of assassinating a Viet Cong leader believed to be in the vicinity. Instead of a military encounter, 20 civilians were killed, some brutally. 13 were children and one a pregnant woman.

 

Kerrey contends that the carnage was a result of mistakes, while both a fellow member of the SEALS squad and village residents say that the killing of the civilians was a result of deliberate actions, and not an accident in the darkness. Kerrey received a Bronze Star for the mission, which was reported falsely to his military superiors as resulted in killing 21 Viet Cong militants. What is almost worse, Kerrey kept silent about the incident for more than 30 years, and only spoke about it in public after learning there was about to be a published piece highly critical of his role. Kerrey now says “I have been haunted for 32 years” and explains, “It was not a military victory, it was a tragedy, and I had ordered it.” The weight of the evidence suggests that Kerrey participated as well as ordered the killings, and that although certainly a tragedy it is more properly acknowledged as a severe war crime amounting to an atrocity.

 

We can only imagine what would be the American or Chinese reaction if Japan sent to the United States or China a comparable person to provide an honorific link between the two countries. For instance, sending a Japanese officer to the U.S. who had cruelly administered a POW camp where Americans were held captive and tortured or sending to China a Japanese commander who had participated in some of the grisly happenings associated with ‘the rape of Nanking.’ It is good that Kerrey is finally contrite about his past role and appears to have been genuinely involved in promoting this goodwill encouragement of quality education in Vietnam, yet it seems unacceptably insensitive that he would be chosen to occupy such a position in an educational institution in Vietnam that is named after a prominent American senator who is particularly remembered for his efforts to bringing the Vietnam War to an end.

 

What connects these two seemingly distinct concerns is the steadfast refusal of the United States Government to take responsibility for its past crimes, which ensures that when future political pressures push toward immoral and unlawful behavior a similar disregard for minimal decency will be papered over. Obama’s refusal to consider accountability for the unabashed reliance on torture during the presidency of George W. Bush similarly whitewashes the past while unconvincingly promising to do better in the future. Such a pattern makes a mockery of claims made by Obama on behalf of the United States that unlike its adversaries this is a country that reveres the rule of law whenever it acts at home or abroad. From the pragmatic standpoint of governing America, in fairness, Obama never really had a choice. The political culture would have rebelled against holding the Bush administration accountable for its crime, which brings us closer to the truth of a double standard of suspending the applicability of international criminal law with respect to the policies and practices of the United States while championing individual legal responsibility for its adversaries as an expression of the evolution of moral standards in international life.

 

I believe that double standards has led Obama to put himself forward both as a visionary who seeks a transformed peaceful and just world and also as a geopolitical manager that accepts the job description of the presidency as upholding American global dominance by force as necessary. Now that Obama’s time in the White House is nearing its end we are better able to grasp the incompatibility of his embrace of these two roles, which sadly, and likely tragically, leads to the conclusion that the vision of a world without nuclear weapons was never meant to be more than empty words. What the peoples of the world need to discover over and over again is that the promising words flow easily from the lips of leaders have little significance unless supplemented by a robust movement from below that challenges those who are governing from above. As activists in the 1960s began to understand is that only when the body pushes against the machine will policies incline toward peace and justice, and we in the 21st century will have to rediscover this bit of political wisdom if hope for a nuclear free world is to become a genuine political project.

 

If more than rhetoric is attached to the call for a “moral revolution,” then the place to start would be to question, prior to abandoning, the mentality that is comfortable with double standards when it come to war making and criminal accountability. The whole idea of impunity for the victors and capital punishment for the losers is morally regressive. Both the Obama visit to Hiroshima, as significant as it was, and the Kerrey relationship to the Fulbright Vietnam University, show that American society, even at its best, is far from prepared to take part in the necessary moral revolution.

 

 

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UN Report on War Crimes during Israel’s 51 Day Assault on Gaza

6 Jul

 

 

Exactly a year ago, for 51 days between July 7 and August 26 Israel carried out its third major military assault (2008-09; 2012; 2014) on Gaza in the past six years. This last one, code named Operation Protective Edge by Israeli Defense Forces, was the most vicious, killing 2,251 Palestinians, of which 1,462 were civilians, and included 299 women and 551 children, as well as injuring 11,231, a number that includes 3,436 children, 10% of whom have permanent disabilities, and another 1,500 have been orphaned. Israel also suffered casualties: 73 killed of whom 67 were military personnel, and 1,600 injured. Additional to the human casualties, 18,000 Palestinian housing units were destroyed, along with substantial damage to Gaza’s electricity and sanitation systems, 500, 000 Palestinians (almost 1/3 of Gaza’s population) were forcibly displaced during the military operations and 100,000 remain so a year later, and 73 medical facilities and ambulances were destroyed or damaged. Due to the Israeli blockade, the aftermath of this onslaught has prevented a normal recovery, extending the period of suffering endured by the entire Gazan population. The magnitude of the Palestinian losses, as well as the comparison with Israeli losses, and the comparative ratio of civilians to military killed on the two sides, by itself suggests that the essential character of this Israeli undertaking is best understood as ‘state terror’ directed at Gaza’s population as a whole. Such conclusions are reinforced by Israel’s provocations during the month prior to the launch of the attack and by the refusal of its government even to consider frequent proposals by Hamas to establish long-term internationally supervised ceasefire proposals.

 

This one-sided impression of the events is not conveyed by the much anticipated UN Report of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) set up by the Human Rights Council to investigate violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law in July of 2014 that were occurring during Operation Protective Edge. The Commission was originally chaired by William Schabas, a leading world expert of international criminal law, but he resigned under pressure effectively mounted by Israel and the United States, centering on the discovery that Schabas has accepting a small consulting fee for some professional advice given to the Palestinian Liberation Organization a few years earlier. This unhappy development left the commission with only two members, Mary McGowan Davis from the United States and Doudou Déne from Senegal, with Judge McGowan being named as chair. Neither is considered expert in relation to the subject matter being investigated.

 

Balance amid Imbalance

 

The report strives for ‘balance’ carefully setting off violations by Israel against those of what it calls ‘Palestinian armed groups’ creating a profoundly false sense on the part readers as to equivalent responsibility for wrongful behavior by both Israel and Palestine. I agree with Ali Abunimah’s carefully formulated explanation for this misleading approach taken in the report and the deeper message being conveyed: “Despite the ‘balanced’ language that is now the habitual refuge of international officials hoping to avoid false accusations of anti-Israel bias, the evidence shows the scale and impact of Israel’s violence dwarfs anything allegedly done by Palestinians.” [See Ali Abunimah, “’Balance’ in UN Gaza Report can’t hide massive Israeli War Crimes,” Electronic Intifada, 22 June 2015] Or as the widely respected international NGO, BADIL, expresses a similar reaction: “In the language employed, there appears a desire to portray the adversaries as being on an equal footing, despite this being patently untrue, as revealed in the vast disparity in respective casualties and destructive capabilities…attempts to portray ‘balance’ where there is none is extremely problematic.” Typical of the imbalanced balance, the Report observes that “Palestinian and Israeli children were savagely affected by the events,” [§25] which is accurate in a literal sense, but a gross example of treating unequals equally, given the far greater severity of suffering endured by Palestinian children.

Looking for a glimmer of silver lining, some have endorsed this framing device of balance as justified to so as to persuade the mainstream media in the West, and especially the United States, to view the contents of the report more seriously as it cannot be dismissed simply by being called anti-Israeli, or worse, anti-Semitic.

 

As Abunimah emphasizes there is this strange mismatch between the strong evidence of Israeli disregard of legal constraints on military tactics that unduly imperil civilians and this rhetoric of balance, which in effect, assigns blame to both sides. This is not to argue that the criminality of resistance tactics employed by Hamas and associated military groups in Gaza should be entirely ignored, but rather that the primary human impact of Protective Edge was to leave Gaza bleeding and devastated, while Israel endured minimal damage and dramatically less destructive impacts on its societal order. Israeli damage was repaired almost immediately. In contrast, Israel’s refusal to allow ample reconstructions materials to enter has left substantial parts of Gaza in ruins, with many Gazans continuing to lack adequate shelter, remain homeless, displaced, and understandably traumatized.

 

 

 

 

Civilian Focus

 

Despite what might appear to be overly cautious language, a fair reading of the report supports three important conclusions:

  • that Israel’s supposed efforts to protect the civilian population of Gaza were grossly inadequate from the perspective of international humanitarian law, and probably constituted war crimes; and
  • that the military tactics employed by Israel on the battlefield were “reflective of broader policy, approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest level of Government of Israel.”
  • that the focus was on the civilian victims rather than on a bland acceptance of arguments premised on ‘military necessity’ or ‘asymmetric warfare’: in the words of the report, “The commission considered that the victims and their human rights were at the core of its mandate.”

Such findings, coupled with the detailed evidence set forth in the body of the report, provide the International Criminal Court with a strong, if indirect, mandate to proceed further with its preliminary investigation of Israeli criminality in the Gaza War. Palestine is reinforcing this momentum by submitting its own body of evidence to back up allegations of Israeli criminality related to Protective Edge. The Commission makes clear that it is relying, as is customary for non-judicial inquiries of this sort, on a ‘reasonable grounds’ test of potential criminality [§11], which is not as rigorous as would be applied in an ICC trial of accused individuals where the test is often formulated “as guilty beyond reasonable doubt” or some wording to that effect.

 

The Report makes no pretension of making a professional determination as to whether criminal prosecution should follow from its findings, although in its Recommendations section it does urge both the ICC and national courts relying on Universal Jurisdiction to move forward with indictments and prosecutions if the apparent criminality of either side’s conduct is confirmed by further investigation. The ICC had already begun an investigation of its own in response to a Palestinian request after Palestine became a party to the Rome Treaty that provides the authoritative framework for addressing alleged international crimes at an international level. Whether the ICC can bring any perpetrators of Israel’s criminal policies to justice is extremely doubtful as Israel, a non-member, is certain to denounce the effort and the institution and refuse all forms of cooperation; it is relevant also to note that the ICC is not permitted to hold trials without the presence in the courtroom of those accused. Nevertheless, even the prospect of indictments and arrest warrants is itself a strong challenge to Israel’s approach to Gaza, and to the Palestinians generally, and it will further strengthen the BDS Campaign, as well as the wider global solidarity movement that rests on the delegitimizing of Israel’s policies and practices. It will also inhibit travel of Israeli political and military leaders to those countries that empower national courts to exercise universal jurisdiction in relation to well-evidenced allegations of violations of international criminal law.

 

Context

 

There are some definite positive elements in the Report beyond these general conclusions worth mentioning. Unlike prior assessments, including the Goldstone Report of 2009 dealing with Operation Cast Lead, the attack on Gaza that began on December 27, 2008, this new report specifies the context by referring to the Israeli blockade of Gaza as imposing “a continuing collective penalty against the population of Gaza,” [§15]. The Report fails to take the next logical step of identifying this penalty as a flagrant violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that unconditionally prohibits any collective punishment, and hence is a continuing crime against humanity. Helpfully, though, the Report does say that “the impact of hostilities cannot be assessed separately from the blockade imposed by Israel.” This view is appropriately reinforced with the significant call for “a full and immediate lifting of the blockade,” [§24] although the relevance of the blockade is not stressed in the COI analysis of the combat tactics relied upon by both sides, which suffers from its resolve to appear ‘balanced.’

 

The Report also took innovative account of the fact that the Palestinians were suffering from ‘protracted occupation’ and that there was absent any prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine. [§14ff] Acknowledging that this defining reality has some bearing on the reasonableness of resistance tactics, and should be treated as relevant when assessing the severity of violations. In contrast, Israel as the occupier that has long not only failed to implement, but actively subverted, the unanimous Security Council injunction to withdraw from territory occupied in 1967, should be held to higher standards of compliance with international law by the UN. In the end, the incendiary question posed indirectly is “What are the Palestinians expected to do by way of resistance, considering that they lack precision weaponry and have long been victimized by a prolonged occupation that is oppressive and exploitative, and shows no sign of ending anytime soon?’

 

These contextual factors are also affected by a diplomatic context in which Israel insists on treating Hamas as a terrorist entity, despite the fact that Hamas has been offering long-term proposals for peaceful coexistence supervised by an international presence ever since it decided to pursue a political track to liberation when it participated successfully in 2006 elections in Gaza and the West Bank and effectively abandoned armed struggle, including suicide bombing, as its approach to liberation. Such a potential diplomatic path to Israeli security is not mentioned in the Report, or its legal correlative, that since World War II, recourse to war is legally valid only as a last resort even where legal claims of self-defense are well-grounded. In this regard, Israel’s refusal to explore a diplomatic alternative to war casts doubts on its claim to be acting in necessary self-defense. This diplomatic option for Israeli security should have been discussed in the Report even if it could not be definitively proven to exist. Also, not discussed, is whether given stage-setting Israeli anti-Hamas provocations in the West Bank, which are set forth in the Report, along with the absence of any substantial damage from Gaza rockets fired at Israel, the legal conditions for a claim of self-defense existed given the seeming absence of a prior armed attack as required by Article 51 of the UN Charter.

 

The Report relies on a methodology based on a reasonable interpretation of customary international law articulated by reference to three principles: of distinction (limiting attacks to discrete military targets) ; of proportionality (avoiding uses of force disproportionate to the value of the target); of precaution (taking reasonable measures to avoid civilian death and destruction). [§13] It is evident to the COI that Palestinian missiles, inaccurate and directed toward Israeli population centers, violate the principle of distinction even if they do little damage as do Israeli strikes directed at densely populated residential neighborhoods that inflict massive damage. For instance, the Report condemns the Israeli use of massive firepower against Rafah and Shuja’iya “in utter disregard of its devastating impact on the civilian population.” [§58] Although the Report finds that the use of human shields by either side is a violation of the laws of war, it fails to find sufficient evidence to reach any firm conclusion.

 

Recommendations

 

In the conclusions and recommendations of the Report there are various calls made for greater vigilance in following through, arguing that imposing accountability for violations of international criminal law is relevant to avoiding a repetition of the Protective Edge experience. In this spirit the Report indicates that the victims, in particular, stressed examining “the root causes of the conflict” as an essential step toward future. [§75] There was also a determined emphasis placed on overcoming impunity with respect to such crimes, and in particular, “Israel must break with its lamentable record in holding wrongdoers responsible.” [§76] There is also a specific call to support the work of the ICC, and for Israel to accede to the Rome Treaty that controls the operation of the ICC.[§86(e); 89(d)]

 

The recommendations that are most relevant are set forth in §86(d):

 

“To address structural issues that fuel the conflict and have a negative impact on a wide range of human rights, including the right to self-determination; in particular, to lift, immediately and unconditionally, the blockade on Gaza; to cease all settlement-related activity, including the transfer of Israel’s own population to the occupied territory; and to implement the advisory opinion rendered on 9 July 2004 by the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the construction of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

This enumeration is a departure from the tone and substance of balance, and calls upon Israel to bring its behaviour as Occupier into conformity with international humanitarian law. It refrains from mandating the dismantling of the unlawful settlements, but otherwise goes quite far in relation to human rights, including self-determination, settlement expansion, and the wall to address the most fundamental Palestinian grievances.

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

As might have been anticipated, despite the balance of the Report, it was attacked as biased even before being made public by Israel and the United States, and its presentation in an open debate at the Human Rights Council was boycotted. Israel went further, issued extensive report prepared under the aegis of the Israel Defense Forces that exonerated Israel on all counts. [Special Report, ‘Operation Protective Edge,’ Israel Defense Forces, June 2015; “The 2014 Gaza Conflict: Factual and Legal Aspects,” Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 2015] It also invited a group of ‘high-level’ military officers and diplomats to review the allegations, which also vindicated Israel’s claims in its consensus report. [“Key Preliminary Findings of the High Level International Military Group on the Gaza Conflict,” June 12, 2015, UN Watch home page] In effect, the familiar battle lines are drawn at inter-governmental levels, making it clear that nothing can be expected to flow from this Report beyond a further recognition that if the Palestinian struggle is to advance at this stage it will depend on the activism of civil society rather than on the policies of governments or the implementation of the Report’s recommendations by the United Nations.

At the same time, as with the earlier Goldstone Report, it is important that this COI fully documented the essential charges with elaborate evidence, and legitimates the coercive tactics of Palestinian resistance and the nonviolent militancy of the global solidarity movement. As the COI noted, Israel again refused cooperation with the investigative efforts from their outset. The political weight of the Report is augmented by the fact that its findings and recommendation were formally received with approval by a vote of 41-1 in the Human Rights Council.

As could be anticipated, the United States was the lone member of the HRC that refused support to the Report. Even Europe, voting as a unit, gave its positive endorsement. Human Rights Watch made the following observation: “The lack of support by the United States—the only state to vote against shows a disappointing unwillingness to challenge impunity for serious crimes during the Gaza conflict and to stand up for the victims of war crimes during the conflict.”

 

It is sad that despite the abusive attitudes exhibited by the Netanyahu government toward the Obama presidency there is no willingness on the part of Washington to back international criminal law in such circumstances of gross violation. When the United States Government, still the world’s most influential political actor, gives such precedence to the most cynical aspects of alliance politics it sends a powerful message that governments can freely abandon principled foreign policy whenever it conflicts with hard power calculations of geopolitics (and in this instance, more relevantly, with the soft power dynamics of American domestic politics).

 

 

 

Opposing Impunity for Geopolitical Criminality

5 Apr

 

 

Responding to intense pressure from the usual sources William Schabas, a prominent and respected expert on international criminal law, recently resigned as Chair of the UN expert commission of inquiry into war crimes allegations arising from the massive Israeli military operations in Gaza during July and August of 2014. These issues relating to international criminal accountability have also received recent prominence due to Palestine’s adherence to the Rome Treaty making it a party to the International Criminal Court, an initiative that generated an enraged punitive reaction on the part of Israel as well as an angry denunciation by Washington. On display in these instances is the struggle between extending the rule of law to international state crimes and the geopolitical resistance to such an effort whenever accountability to law is in tension with the pursuit of strategic interests.

Imposing international criminal responsibility upon political leaders and military commanders that occur in the aftermath of wars possesses a dual character from a geopolitical perspective: to vindicate major military undertakings of liberal democratic states and to ensure impunity for the leaders of these same states in the event that their behavior or that of their allies are alleged to be international crimes. These efforts at vindication are associated with strengthening the global rule of law and validating the established order, while impunity is invoked to insulate powerful individuals and their governments from criminal accountability. The resulting pattern in international life is one of double standards at the level of implementation and hypocritical rhetoric about the importance of a global rule of law based on its universal applicability.

 

Contemporary experience with these issues is grounded in the aftermath of World War II. In 1945 with great fanfare after World War II, especially at Nuremberg in the legal prosecution of surviving Nazi leaders, as well as at Toyko where a series of prominent Japanese personalities who had headed the imperial government and commanded its military forces were accused and convicted of international crimes. These sophisticated ‘show trials’ were generally endorsed in the West as a civilized alternative to the favored Soviet and British approaches, which would have been to arrange summary mass executions of all Germans deemed responsible for international crimes without making any effort to assess the gravity or accuracy of the charges directed at specific individuals. What was done at Nuremberg in 1945 was for prosecutors to prepare carefully evidence of alleged wrongdoing of each defendant under indictment as well as developing arguments about the legal relevance of the international crimes at stake while giving those accused an almost free hand to offer legal defenses and mitigating evidence as prepared by competent lawyers appointed to render them assistance.

 

In most respects, Nuremberg in particular continues to be viewed as a landmark success in the annals of the progressive development of international law. It is also significant that the outcomes of parallel Tokyo prosecutions of Japanese leaders are virtually unknown except in Japan where they are decried as ‘victors’ justice’ and throughout the world among a few specialists in international criminal law.

 

There are several reasons for the prominence of Nuremberg. First of all, the disclosures of the Holocaust at Nuremberg were so ghastly that some sort of punishment of those responsible seemed to be a moral imperative at the time.

Although the crime of genocide did not yet exist in law, the revelations of the Nuremberg proceedings documented as never before the systematic extermination of Jews and others in Europe. Beyond this, the war was widely believed to have been a just and necessary response to the menace of Naziism and Japanese imperialism, and their embrace of aggressive war. The Allied victory was viewed as decisive in overcoming the fascist challenge to liberal democracy, with the Nuremberg Judgment providing an authoritative rationale for waging a defensive war so costly in lives, devastation, and resources. Finally, the claim to be establishing a structure of legal accountability that took precedence over national law seemed integral to the postwar resolve to keep the peace in the future and deter aggression by reminding all leaders of the possibility of criminal accountability for initiating a war or abusing people under their control. The advent of nuclear weaponry reinforced the moral and political conviction that major wars must now be prevented by all available means, including this warning to leaders and military commanders that their actions could become the subject of criminal prosecution.

 

At the same time, this Nuremberg/Tokyo experiment was tainted from the outset. It was clearly victors’ justice that incorporated double standards. The evident crimes of the winners in the war were not even investigated, including the atomic bombings of two Japanese cities, which were viewed around the world as perhaps the worst single acts of wrongdoing throughout the course of the entire war, and only the Nazi death camps were in some way equivalent in relation to legality and morality. There were official statements made at Nuremberg that those who sat in judgment of the Germans would in the future be subject to similar procedures of accountability if they committed acts that seemed to be crimes under international law implying that the rule of law would replace victors’ justice. In effect, the claim made on behalf of moral credibility and political fairness was that this Nuremberg/Tokyo approach would assume the attributes of the rule of law by treating equals equally in future conflicts. Such expectations, if scrutinized, seemed to reflect the hopes of ‘liberal legalists’ in universal legal standards, but were never realistic goals given the structure and nature of world politics.

 

In effect, this Nuremberg promise could not be kept because geopolitical primacy continues to set the limits of legal accountability. Although there has existed an International Criminal Court since 2002, and ample grounds for believing that some major sovereign states have committed international crimes, there have zero prosecutions directed at dominant political actors, and not even investigations into possible criminality have been launched. Such a pattern results from a normative gap in world order that is not likely to be closed soon. It is a gap that is most visibly expressed by reference to the right of veto possessed as a matter of law by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This right of veto amounts to an institutional grant of exemption from the legal obligation to comply with the UN Charter on matters of peace and security. For these five states and their friends and allies, compliance is discretionary, and non-compliance is in effect ‘a right.’ In this regard, the UN Charter is itself a product of what might be called ‘geopolitical realism,’ which takes precedence over the apolitical aspirations of ‘liberal legalists.’

 

And yet, the impulse to hold accountable those who commit crimes against the peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity remains strong among moderate democratic governments and in some sectors of global civil society. As a result there is some further development of the Nuremberg idea, although the fundamental tensions between hard power and establishing a credible rule of law with general applicability remains. During the 1990s the UN Security Council established ad hoc international tribunals to assess criminal responsibility associated with the breakup of former Yugoslavia and in relation to the genocidal massacres in Rwanda. In these North/South settings, there was more willingness to allow all sides to bring forth their arguments about the criminal behavior of their adversary since there were no allegations directed at geopolitical heavyweights. That is, the approach of liberal legalists became practical in these situations where no high profile geopolitical actor is being accused of an international crime.

 

The International Criminal Court was itself brought into being in 2002 by an unusual coalition of forces, joining governments with a great many NGOs drawn from around the world in a joint project. What came into being is an international institution with a mandate to investigate and prosecute, but lacking the participation and support of the dominant states, and operating within a framework that up to now has been deferential to the sensitivities of sovereign states in the West. Operating in such a limited way has led the ICC in its first decade to focus its attention almost entirely on African leaders, while looking the other way with respect to geopolitical actors. Liberals conceive of this as progress, doing what can be done, and beneficial to the extent that it apprehends some persons who have been responsible for atrocities and crimes against humanity. Critics of the ICC view it as another venue for the administration of ‘victors’ justice’ and an inscription of Western moral hegemony that entails a cynical expression of double standards. Both interpretations are plausible. The ICC is currently facing an identity test as to whether it will undertake investigations of alleged Israeli criminality made at the request of Palestine. Its institutional weight is being demonstrated by the degree to which the Israeli leadership reacts with fury, punitive policies, and intense anger directed at the Palestinian Authority for raising such a possibility. It should surprise few that Israel’s backlash against the ICC is supported by the United States.

 

For centuries there has been recognized the capacity of national courts to act as agents of law enforcement in relation to international wrongdoing. Such a judicial role was long exercised in Western countries in relation to international piracy, which was viewed as a crime against the whole world and hence could be prosecuted anywhere. Such an extension of international criminal law is based on ideas of ‘universal jurisdiction,’ strengthening the capacity of international society to address serious crimes of state. This kind of approach receive great attention in relation to allegations of torture made against the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, after he was detained by Britain in response to a 1998 request for extradition by Spain where a court stood ready to prosecute on the basis of indictments already made. After a series of legal proceedings in Britain the House of Lords acting as the country’s highest judicial body decided that Pinochet should be extradited, but only for torture charges relating to a period after torture became an international crime within Britain. In theory, national courts could become much more active in relation to universal jurisdiction if so empowered by parliamentary mandate, but again doing so without challenging geopolitical red lines. When Belgian courts threatened to proceed against Donald Rumsfeld because of his alleged authorization of torture in Iraq, political pressures were mounted by Washington, including even threats to move NATO. In the end, Belgium backed down by revising its national criminal code so as to make it much more difficult to prosecute international crimes that occurred outside of Belgium and for which Belgians were not victims or perpetrators.

 

Civil society has also acted to close the normative gap created by patterns of geopolitical impunity. In the midst of the Vietnam War, motivated by a sense of moral outrage and the paralysis of official institutions when it came to challenging American behavior, Bertrand Russell organized a symbolic legal proceeding that investigated charges of criminality in 1966 and 1967. Prominent intellectuals from around the world were invited to serve as a jury of conscience, heard evidence, issuing their opinion as to law and facts at the end. Inspired by this Russell Tribunal experience, the Permanent Peoples Tribunal was established a decade later by citizens, operating out of Rome, holding sessions on issues where there existed moral outrage, legal prohibitions, and institutional paralysis, symbolically challenging geopolitical impunity. In 2005 there was organized in Istanbul by a dedicated group of female activists an independent tribunal to investigate war crimes charges against British and American political and military leaders, as well as corporate actors associated with the Iraq War. The Iraq War Tribunal relied upon a jury of conscience chaired by Arundhati Roy to pronounce upon the evidence. Of course, such a tribunal can only challenge impunity symbolically by influencing public opinion, and possibly through encouraging boycotts and other moves that delegitimize the claimants of power and possibly alter the political climate. Nevertheless, it plays a role in the legitimacy war dimensions of international conflicts, providing an alternative narrative to the discourse

disseminated by geopolitical forces and giving encouragement to civil society activism by providing a convincing rationale for concluding that contested behavior violates fundamental norms of international law and morality.

 

In summary, it is still accurate to observe that geopolitical primacy inhibits the implementation of international criminal law from the perspective of a global rule of law regime that treats equals equally. At the same time, ever since Nuremberg there have been efforts to end the impunity of those guilty of international crimes in war/peace situations and national settings of oppressive rule. These efforts have taken several main forms: (1) the establishment by the UN of ad hoc tribunals with a specific mandate as with former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; (2) the establishment of a treaty based international institution, the International Criminal Court, with limited participation and disappointing results to date; (3) reliance on universal jurisdiction to activate national courts to act as agents on behalf of international society with respect to enforcing international criminal law; (4) the formation of civil society tribunals to assess criminal responsibility of

leaders in situations of moral outrage and global settings that render unavailable either inter-governmental or governmental procedures of accountability. (1)-(3) are projects of liberal legality, while (4) draws on more progressive jurisprudential energies outside the statist paradigm.

 

In the end, there is posed a choice. One possibility is go along with the one-eyed efforts of liberal legalists, most notably mainstream NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, silently acknowledging that the rule of law cannot be expected to function in relation to many serious international crimes due to the hierarchical and hegemonic structure of international society. The other possibility is to insist there can be no international justice so long as there exists a regime of ‘geopolitical impunity.’ In both instances, the contributions of civil society tribunals are needed, both for the sake of symbolic indictment and documentation of wrongdoing, and to acknowledge civil society as the moral and legal conscience of humanity. It must be admitted that only among liberal democracies are such self-critical initiatives of civil society tolerated, although such undertakings are derided and marginalized by mainstream media as the work of a ‘kangaroo court.’ Obama’s refusal to look back at the international crimes alleged against leading members of the Bush presidency is one awkward admission of the limits on legal accountability; such reasoning if generalized would invalidate any concern with all forms of past behavior, and hence any notion of accountability for all crimes. In such a dysutopia criminal law might exist, but by habit and expectation it would never be implemented, however severe the crime and dangerous the criminal. In the world we inhabit, without kangaroo courts international criminal law would continue with its limited writ, and there would no tribunals whatsoever to assess the criminality of the most powerful political actors on the world stage that menace many vulnerable peoples in the world.

 

 

 

 

Prosecuting Syrians for War Crimes Now

5 Jun

 

 

            A major undertaking of the victorious powers in World War II was to impose individual criminal accountability upon political and military leaders for alleged crimes committed during wartime before a tribunal convened by the victors that gave those accused a fair opportunity to present a defense. This application of this idea of accountability to German and Japanese surviving leaders at trials held in Nuremberg and Tokyo was hailed at the time as a major step in the direction of a ‘just peace.’ International law was treated as binding upon sovereign states and those that represented the government, conceived to be a major step in the direction of a global rule of law. The final decisions of these tribunals also produced a narrative as to why World War II was a necessary and just war. Such an outcome was both a vindication of the victory on the battlefield and a punitive repudiation of those who fought and lost. Significantly, this criminal process was formally initiated only after the combat phase of the war had ended and Germany and Japan had surrendered.

 

            There were skeptics in 1945 that whispered ‘victors’ justice,’ and insisted that this ‘Nuremberg experience’ was a partisan exercise in truth-telling. Above the courtroom hung an invisible sign reading ‘only losers need enter here.’ The Nuremberg goddess of ‘war justice’ wore no blindfold, assessed with one eye the crimes of the losers and averted her other eye so as not to see the crimes of the winners. In the actual trials those whose criminality was being assessed were not accused of any crimes that resembled the practices of the winners, and were not allowed by the tribunal bring up in their defense any of their alleged crimes.

 

            Many wanted to overlook this flaw, and move on to create a justice system that would indeed operate on the basis of the nature of the act as criminal or not, and not make criminality depend on the identity of the actorBut moving toward the ideal of equality before the law has not been easy. It requires elevating international criminal law above the precepts of geopolitics. Yet the impulse to do so in form has surfaced strongly in the aftermath of the Cold War, but we have yet to see any corresponding substantive transformation that must occur if equals are to be treated equally in international criminal law.

 

            Against such a background, the attempts to hold individuals, whether acting on behalf of governments or insurgencies, individually accountable for war crimes is treated as a core element of global justice. Since the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002, an institutional mechanism exists on a global level by which to apply international criminal law in an objective and authoritative manner. Further there exists convincing proof that horrifying atrocities have been committed in the course of the Syrian civil war, principally by the government and armed forces of Syria, and to a far lesser extent by various factions among the fragmented opposing rebel forces. In these circumstances, it would certainly seem appropriate to charge both Syrian government officials, including military commanders, and members of the insurgent opposition, with such crimes.

 

            France presented a resolution to the UN Security Council on 22 May calling upon the ICC to investigate allegations of war crimes in Syria, and to proceed with prosecutions to the extent possible. The resolution was supported by a 13-2 vote, yet it failed to pass because the two dissenting votes were cast by Russia and China, countries enjoying a right of veto. As might be expected, there have been angry explanations of the result given by both sides. According to the Russian delegate, the French initiative was nothing more than ‘a publicity stunt’ that would hamper, or even preclude, the difficult search for a diplomatic end to the strife. The Western reaction, significantly endorsed by the UN Secretary General’s office, declared that such a use of the veto was ‘irresponsible,’ even ‘disgraceful.’ It amounted to a de facto grant of impunity to the worst perpetrators of state crime active on the planet at this time.

 

            I believe that both of these contrasting reactions are understandable, and can be given a qualified endorsement despite seeming to contradict one another. The Russian reaction reflects a view that the main motivations for such a resolution is to weaken the legitimacy of the Damascus regime in the midst of an unresolved struggle for control of the country, and in this sense is better interpreted geopolitically as an irresponsible propaganda move rather than as a genuine attempt to promote criminal justice. As well, it has been Moscow’s insistence all along that the only way to end the violence in Syria is by way of diplomatic compromise. Thus, any attempt to indict Syrian leaders as war criminals while the fighting persists weakens the already dim prospects of resolving the conflict by diplomacy. It gives Assad and other Syrian leaders, the circle of those that likely would have been indicted, strong incentives to rely on combat rather than take their chances with diplomacy.

 

            The French approach, strongly supported by the Western powers, especially the United States, focuses on the clear evidence of criminality attributable to the Damascus regime. Such behavior deserves to be formally criminalized, and the fact that the Assad regime remains in power enhances the urgency of doing so. There is no need to look beyond these facts, and taking such action may increase the pressure on the Syrian government to seek accommodation.

 

            Further along these lines, the argument that recourse to the ICC will end diplomatic efforts to end the violence is specious. Conventional diplomacy has been given many chances, and has failed. They claim that diplomacy has been repeatedly tried and failed, including reliance at the highest levels on the good offices of the UN and Arab League through the determined efforts by Special Envoys, first, Kofi Annan and the Lakhdar Brahimi. To act as if diplomacy might succeed in the future is mainly a diversionary tactic to discourage taking immediate steps that might bring the war to an end in ways that are helpful to the aspirations of the majority of Syrians. The supporters of the French resolution argue that activating the ICC will produce public indignation, swing support to the insurgent side, and produce a more politically and morally desirable end game to the conflict by discrediting the Damascus regime and empowering the opposition within Syria, the region, and the world. There are many uncertainties exposed by this debate. It is difficult to reach a clear conclusion as to which side is more persuasive, but there are a series of considerations that should be taken into account, and add weight to those who voice skepticism about the French initiative.

 

            Motivation. There are reasons to think that this effort at this time is mainly an expression of frustration and desperation, and as such a misuse of the ICC by Western powers. True, the crimes of the insurgent rebels as well as those of the Syrian government were included in the proposed resolution, but the motivation was to delegitimize the Damascus government. Yet the rationale for initiating a criminal investigation directed at the leadership of all participants in the midst of a civil war for the control of the country seems like a misdirected move that is made in the face of the failure of earlier Western efforts to intervene sufficiently on the insurgent side .to produce regime change

            Timing. To use the ICC in the midst of an ongoing civil war in Syria is to take sides, and thus interfere with an ongoing internal struggle for control of the state and society. Mentioned above, even the Allied Powers in World War II waited until the guns fell silent before initiating any criminal process. As such, acting in the present setting interferes with the right of self-determination enjoyed by the people of Syria. Yet since there has been already considerable interference through funding and material support, the preconditions for self-determination do not exist, making an end to the violence that has been so devastating for the population of the country a primary goal. This makes it seem that the most important question to ask is whether criminal indictments while the war rages is likely to hasten or delay an ending of the conflict. And since neither side has shown the ability to prevail, the Russians seem right in their insistence that despite disappointments with earlier efforts, diplomacy continues to be the only path forward, although it is admittedly narrow.

           

            Justice. Is justice served when the authority of the ICC is invoked as a political instrument to influence the outcome of a civil war? There are reasons to worry about the discrediting impact of double standards. Why was there never any initiative to pursue leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom during the course of the Iraq War, which also included many incidents that seemed to qualify as crimes against humanity? This question takes on greater weight when added to earlier criticisms of the profile of the ICC, which has pursued a variety of sub-Saharan African leaders, but few others. It is also relevant to recall that the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was indicted in the midst of the Kosovo War in 1999 undertaken without UN authorization by NATO, again seemingly motivated by the urge to strengthen public support for the justness of a legally controversial military effort to end Serbian administration of Kosovo. Again in the NATO led military operation against the Libyan regime, the ICC issued arrest warrants for the Qaddafi leadership while NATO planes were bombing Tripoli. In effect, the allegation being made by critics of such war crimes prosecutions is that the whole undertaking has been politicized in ways that lead to a selective application of the law that seems inconsistent with claims of justice. In effect, the criticism of Nuremberg still applies—only losers and the weak are accountable. For the others, impunity.

 

            Feasibility. The unlikelihood of obtaining personal jurisdiction in relation to the principal perpetrators of war crimes in Syria, especially Bashar al-Assad and major political officials and military commanders, makes the claimed rationale for seeking indictments at this stage also suspect. Proceeding now seems to have as its main justification a means to add moral weight to the position of pro-insurgency governments that something more should be done to stop the criminality of the Assad-led government. Reinforcing this reasoning is a consensus that since military intervention is not feasible and diplomacy has failed, the only option left is to charge Syrian leaders with crimes against humanity. The ICC provides a venue to mobilize pressure for giving additional help to the rebels, and at the same time depriving the Damascus government of whatever is left of its legitimacy. The fact that the French resolution calls also for an investigation of possible crimes against humanity committed by the opposition, while not being frivolous, is nevertheless certain to receive far less attention in the event tha the UNSC had given the ICC a green light.

 

            There is a serious question as to whether it is appropriate to use the ICC to gather evidence and prepare an indictment in circumstances where prospects of prosecution are remote and an ongoing struggle for control of the Syrian state remains unresolved. Such limitations also would seem to reinforce concerns about the timing of this initiative. It makes recourse to ICC not only ineffectual as a means to pursue criminal justice, but damaging to the credibility of this fledgling international institution that was created, it should be remembered, to overcome the vagaries of geopolitics, not to serve as their instrument for engaging in maneuvers.

 

            Concluding Comment. There are two intertwined concerns: First, whether seeking criminal indictments of Syrians accused of crimes against humanity is on balance helpful or harmful in relation to the search for peace that has so far proved fruitless. This issue should be considered in relation to prospects for resolving the devastating conflict in Syria that has already lasted for more than three years.

 

            And secondly, whether such recourse to the ICC would strengthen or weaken this judicial institution, and its need to overcome the strong impression of operating on the basis of double standards in relation to criminal accountability. So far all efforts to use the ICC in response to crimes alleged against Western countries have been rebuffed, and Western leaders have enjoyed impunity and have minimized their own participation in the activities of the ICC except when it serves their interests in going after adversaries. A tiny opening is the recent indication that the ICC is formally investigating criminal charges relating to the abuse of Iraqi detainees by United Kingdom occupying forces in the years after 2003. Perhaps, the times are changing, after all!