War crimes: Big power politics turn human rights into human rites

By Ameen Izzadeen
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)
The landmark Nuremberg trials and many war crimes tribunals that followed since then were largely political in nature while concern for retributive or restorative justice was more often than not a byproduct of the process or a façade.
In its criticism of the Nuremberg trials, the then United States Chief Justice Harlan Stone described it as a “high-grade lynching party” because the judges and the prosecutors ignored the common law principles.
US Justice Robert Jackson who played a key role as the chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg Military Tribunal that inquired into Nazi war crimes, wrote to President Harry S. Truman in 1945 that the Allies themselves “have done or are doing some of the very things we are prosecuting the Germans for.”
Undoubtedly, the Nazis were wicked, but the Allied forces were no angels. The war crimes committed by Britain, the United States, Canada, France, the Soviet Union and other Allied nations largely went unpunished and often unpublicised.
In one of the most gruesome war crimes in human history, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and justified it by saying it was a necessary evil to bring the war to a speedy end. But was there any move to take the US before an international tribunal for causing instant death to more than 350,000 people in the two cities and slow and painful deaths to millions who survived the initial impact of the blasts? If Germany and Japan had won the war, that would have happened.
The US bombing of Tokyo during the World War II also warrants a war crime inquiry because the bombs that rained on the city killed some 120,000 people. So does the allied bombing of Dresden, the capital of the German province of Saxony. Some 25,000 civilians were killed in this attack. But the fact that little has been done to mete out justice to the millions of civilians who died at the hands of the Allied Forces highlights the victor’s justice and the sham behind the war crime tribunals. If the allied forces generals and political leaders had also been punished for war crimes, then one can say that the scales of justice were even.
In recent weeks and months, a so-called international war crimes tribunal in Dhaka has also come under fire from world jurists. The trial, heard by Bangladeshi judges and prosecuted by Bangladeshi prosecutors, is being seen as a witch-hunt against elderly clerics and leaders of the Jamath-e-Islami, a social activist group which is active in many Asian countries. The tribunal has sentenced two of the Jamath leaders to death for alleged crimes against humanity while the cases against ten other leaders are continuing.
They are charged with helping the Pakistani troops who went on a rampage allegedly killing tens of millions of Bangladeshis during the liberation war in 1971. Though the Jamath admits that it opposed the then East Pakistan’s call for a separate state called Bangladesh, it denied all charges of war crimes.
The tribunal’s independence has been called into question after it was revealed that the judges had colluded with leaders of the ruling Awami League, the party headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Though tribunal chairman Mohammed Nizamul Huq resigned in the wake, other judges with connections to the government continue to sit in the tribunal.
Bangladesh National Party leader Begum Khaleda Zia, who heads an opposition coalition which includes the Jamath, questioned the independence of the tribunal after Sheikh Hasina urged the judges to consider the prosecution’s call for death sentence for the accused. “No judge can now independently try the accused after her (the PM’s) call asking them to consider the demand for death sentences to the war criminals,” Zia said.
Questionable trials and sham inquiries are part and parcel of statecraft and politics. It is said if a government wants to soothe an angry public over an issue, it only has to announce the appointment of a commission to inquire into it and then forget it. Such commissions are like sperm – only one in million works. The one that succeeds often ends in a miscarriage. Even the so-called developed democracies resort to such tactics to silence public outcry or cover up their shame.
Take for instance, the 2003 Hutton inquiry in Britain. It was set up following the mysterious death of David Kelly, the Defence Ministry scientist and Iraq weapons inspector, who had apparently leaked information to the BBC for the channel to claim that the then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was deliberately “sexed up”. The Hutton inquiry cleared the Blair government of wrongdoing and instead blamed the BBC for the scientist’s suicide. The report drew fire from Britain’s media. Then there was the Butler inquiry which whitewashed Blair saying he was not personally responsible for pre-war intelligence that led Britain to join the Iraq war.
Another was the Chilcot Inquiry, which Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, appointed in 2009 to look into all aspects of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq invasion. The inquiry was to be in camera, but when public protests grew, the Brown government agreed to make parts of the inquiry public.
More than three years have lapsed since the Chilcot commission began its hearings. But the release of the report has been delayed. Media reports said the delay was due to the British government’s efforts to keep tight control over the report.
Last year, the government refused to share key information with the commission – minutes of Cabinet meetings in the days leading up to the Iraq war. The government also refused to divulge details of a phone call between Blair and the then US President George W. Bush, on the grounds that the release of such sensitive information would pose a significant danger to British-American relations. During the inquiry, it came to light that Bush and Blair discussed committing a war crime – to bomb the Al-Jazeera headquarters, a Qatar-based television station that employs thousands of civilians.
The British media this week said that the Chilcot report would not make any reference to the Bush-Blair conversations. The omission of this vital piece of information makes the Chilcot inquiry a damp squib. In the final analysis, the commission gives only a veneer of morality to the British government which has already achieved its Iraq war objectives immorally. In other words, whether the means to the objectives are right or wrong matters little in real politics.
The Chilcot report is unlikely to slap any war crime charges on Blair or Bush, two fugitives from international justice. In February 2011, Bush cancelled a trip to Switzerland following reports that human rights activists there were planning to file a case charging that he committed war crimes.
One wonders whether the ongoing Al-Sweady inquiry in Britain will also end up like the Hutton inquiry or the Chilcot inquiry.
Like the Chilcot inquiry, the Al-Sweady inquiry was initiated by the British government in 2009 to look into allegations that British soldiers killed, mutilated and tortured Iraqi detainees after the Battle of Danny Boy in southern Iraq in 2004. The inquiry, which began hearings only early this month, was told that British troops took some Iraqi captives to a British base where they were tortured and killed. Last week, the judges saw photographs that showed three bodies bearing signs of torture including missing eyes, a missing penis and crushed bones.
On Wednesday, the British military officers who appeared before the inquiry, named after Hamid Al-Sweady, one of those allegedly murdered at the British camp, dismissed the charges as “utterly groundless”.
Whether these inquiries lack credibility or not, they help Britain to ward off international pressure over allegations of human rights violations. However flawed they are, the credibility of these inquiries has not been questioned by international human rights community because there are also cases where the wrongdoers have been punished – as in the Baha Mousa case. Seven British soldiers were sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and dismissed from the military for torturing and killing Mousa, an Iraqi receptionist.
Besides, these commissions have a political value in that they help Britain to walk with its head held high inn the corridors of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
However, across the Atlantic, the United States has adopted a different approach in facing international criticism over its violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws. It gives warped interpretations to national security laws and legalise torture, extrajudicial killings, targeted assassinations, indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and indefinite detention of suspects without trial.
While doing the wrong things legally by twisting the law, the US has the gumption to preach human rights to the rest of the world. It is obvious that the manner, in which the United States names and shames countries like Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, is selective. Though it castigates small countries, it is quick to defend its friends who are the biggest violators of human rights. Israel, for instance, continues to violate human rights laws with impunity in occupied Palestine because the United States prevents moves to censure Israel at international fora. The world human rights community was aghast when in January this year the United States pleaded with the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council to take a soft approach towards Israel. This happened when a motion was taken up to punish the Zionist nation for snubbing the council by not attending a crucial session where it was called upon to answer charges of human rights violation.
With such politicisation of human rights, the ultimate sufferers are the people whose rights have been violated. They can expect justice only when the big powers learn to conduct their international affairs and wars by respecting international moral norms. A world order where justice prevails will not come about as long as the United Nations remains an undemocratic institution with the world’s biggest human rights violators enjoying veto powers in the Security Council.

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
This entry was posted in Political analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to War crimes: Big power politics turn human rights into human rites

  1. Fayaz says:

    Man chose and Allah will dispose..

  2. kevin88fern says:

    Calling Jamat-e-Islami as a social activist group is as good a joke as calling RSS as a cultural organisation.

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