War Criminals

War crimes, as well as crimes against humanity. are among the gravest crimes in international law. They are considered so serious that there is no period of limitation for such crimes; those who commit them can be prosecuted and punished no matter how much time has elapsed since the crimes were committed.

What does a war crime look like? It’s varied, to be honest; there are the violations of established laws of war, but also include;

  1. Attacking anyone displaying a flag of truce.
  2. Using a flag of truce to mount an attack on enemy troops.
  3. Using chemical and biological weapons.
  4. Attacking parachutists who eject from disabled aircraft
  5. Parachutists who surrender when they’ve landed.
  6. Punishing enemy spies without trial.
  7. Mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilians.
  8. Mass murder and genocide.
  9. Rape and other forms of sexual violence.
  10. Deliberate attacks on citizens and property of neutral states.
  11. Waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements, or assurances.
  12. Plunder of property
  13. Wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages
  14. Devastation not justified by military necessity
  15. Ill treatment or deportation of the civilian population in occupied territory
  16. Torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments
  17. Enslavement
  18. Deportation

Something I should touch on at this point; the legalities of war have sometimes been accused of containing favoritism toward the winners (“Victor’s justice”), as some controversies have not been ruled as war crimes. Some examples include the Allies’ destruction of Axis cities during World War II, such as the firebombing of Dresden, the indiscriminate bombings started by Churchill, the Operation Meetinghouse raid on Tokyo (the most destructive single bombing raid in history) and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the mass killing of Biharies by Kader Siddique and Mukti Bahini before or after victory in the Bangladesh Liberation War between 1971 and 1972.

Specifically related to the World War II bombings, it should be noted that, at the time, there was no international treaty or instrument protecting a civilian population specifically from attack by aircraft, therefore the aerial attacks on civilians were not officially war crimes. Because of this, the Allies at the trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo never prosecuted the Germans, including Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring, for the bombing raids on Warsaw, Rotterdam, and British cities during the Blitz as well as the indiscriminate attacks on Allied cities with V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets, nor the Japanese for the aerial attacks on crowded Chinese cities.

Controversy aroused when the Allies re-designated German POWs (under the protection of the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War) as Disarmed Enemy Forces (unprotected by the same Convention), and then many of whom were used for forced labour.

Victor’s justice isn’t always true; several Americans were tried for war crimes committed in the Vietnam conflict.

The concept of war crimes is a recent one. Before World War II, it was generally accepted that the horrors of war were part of the nature of war, and recorded examples of what we would now call war crimes go back to Greek and Roman times. Armies frequently behaved brutally to enemy soldiers and non-combatants alike – and whether there was any punishment for this depended on who eventually won the war. Commanders and politicians usually escaped any punishment for their role in war – or, if they lost, were summarily executed or imprisoned.

There was no structured approach to dealing with ‘war crimes’ nor any general agreement that political and military leaders should take criminal responsibility for the acts of their states or their troops. Attitudes changed during World War II when the murder of several million people – mainly Jews – by Nazi Germany, and the mistreatment of both civilians and prisoners of war by the Japanese, prompted the Allied powers to prosecute the people they believed to be the perpetrators of these crimes.

Leaders, organisers, instigators, and accomplices are criminally responsible for everything done by anyone in carrying out their plans. The fact that a person was obeying an order of their government or of a superior does not free them from responsibility, but can be considered and may reduce the punishment.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court (based in The Hague) was born, in order to prosecute war crimes committed on or after that date. Several nations, most notably the United States, China, Russia, and Israel, have criticised the court, but the United States still participates as an observer.

High-profile people indicted by the court include;

  • Charles Taylor. With an economics degree and guerrilla training in Libya, Taylor had a unique CV even before his coup against Liberian president Samuel Doe. He’s notorious for his conscription of child soldiers, whom he kept loyal with drugs and permission to rape and plunder. He also bribed American evangelic Pat Robertson, trading mining concessions for DC lobbying. After three years on trial, where he had two cells in The Hague (one for him, another for his legal papers), he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
  • Joseph Kony. As the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army – which began a guerrilla war against Uganda in 1987, and has since expanded its reach to Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic – Kony is the king of African warlords. Since 2008, the LRA has kidnapped or killed around 6,000 civilians and displaced some 400,000. He has been a fugitive since 2005, having been indicted by the ICC on 33 counts.
  • Félicien Kabuga. Called “Africa’s Pol Pot” by the Sunday Times, the Rwandan millionaire is accused of financing the genocide of Tutsis in 1994. In 2002, the US offered $5 million for information leading to his capture; a later attempt to arrest him left an informant dead. He’s still at large; while his wife and children are said to live in Europe, it’s believed that the septuagenarian is hiding out in Kenya.
  • Efraín Ríos Montt. Head of a military cabal in 1980s Guatemala, Ríos Montt ran a campaign to break leftist guerrillas and wipe out their Mayan supporters. A UN truth commission later called it genocide. Despite an international warrant issued by a Spanish judge in 2006, the 85-year-old has served in the Guatemalan Congress since 2007.
  • Ratko Mladić. The “Butcher of Bosnia” was indicted in 1995 for his role in the four-year siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre of nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslims. Following the 2001 arrest of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, Mladić went into hiding, evading capture for a decade. However, he was found, and is now in jail – despite refusing to enter pleas at his trial, instead disrupting the courtroom with several outbursts until he was removed.
  • Omar Bashir. President of Sudan since 1989, Bashir allegedly ordered the rape, murder, and torture of civilians in Darfur. In 2009, he became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the ICC. Despite this, Bashir is still Sudan’s president. He’s openly flouted the ICC’s order for extradition by travelling to Chad, Kenya, and Djibouti without incident.

There are also a number of people who, it’s argued by many, should be indicted for war crimes. Let me give you a few examples;

  • Robert McNamara. Former US Secretary of Defence, he was responsible – through his decision-making – for the deaths of approximately 2-3 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, and – it could be said – for the 58,000 dead US servicemen press into the war. He has never been charged with any crimes.
  • Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State. He was involved in the above conflict, and condoned thousands of deaths in Chile under the aegis of US foreign policy.
  • George H W Bush.  Former spy & US President. While serving under Ronald Reagan, he encouraged the Iraq-Iran war, resulting in deaths of one million people, and allowed US oil and arms dealers to profit greatly.  During the ‘Eighties, he encouraged US-sponsored military dictators in Latin America, guilty of extermination of thousands of ordinary citizens, via US-trained “death squads.”  He conducted a pre-emptive war with Panama, resulting in up to 4,000 deaths, simply to topple former CIA henchman and drug lord, Manuel Noriega
  • George W Bush. Former US president. He conducted two pre-emptive wars, resulting in over 100,000 US, Iraqi, and Afghani deaths. He condoned the use of torture as a form of US policy and rejected the Geneva Convention.

Of course, whether these men are war criminals is a matter for discussion, but then again, the same could be said of the previous list … couldn’t it?

In the Iraq wars, there were a number of cases where British soldiers opened fire and killed Iraqi civilians, in circumstances where there was apparently no imminent threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others. Many of them resorted to lethal force even though the use of such force did not appear to be justified by military necessity in order to protect life. Many Iraqi civilians also died or were seriously injured from brutal mistreatment while under British custody. In one case, following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a video showed British soldiers brutally beating an Iraqi civilian after the killing of six Royal Military Policemen, known as Red Caps, by an Iraqi mob.

In May 2003, Saeed Shabram and his cousin, Menem Akaili, were thrown into the river near Basra after being detained by British troops. Akaili survived, but Shabram drowned. Akaili said that he and Shabram were approached by a British patrol and led at gunpoint down to a jetty before being forced into the river. The punishment was known as “wetting” and said to have been inflicted on local youths suspected of looting. Though the MOD paid compensation to Saeed Shabram’s family, none of the British soldiers were charged for his death.

Ahmed Jabbar Kareem Ali, aged 15, was on his way to work with his brother on 8 May 2003, when British soldiers assaulted him. The four British soldiers beat him then forced him into a canal at gunpoint to “teach him a lesson” for suspected looting (which wasn’t proven to be true). Weakened from the beating, Ali floundered. He was dead when he was pulled from the river. Four British soldiers who were involved in the death of an Iraqi teenager were acquitted of manslaughter.

Corporal Donald Payne is a former soldier in the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment of the British Army. He became the first member of the British armed forces to be convicted of a war crime, for the death of Baha Mousa, when he pleaded guilty on 19 September 2006 to a charge of inhumane treatment. He was jailed for one year and dismissed from the army.

In February 2006, a video showing a group of British soldiers beating several Iraqi teenagers was posted on the internet, and shortly thereafter, on television networks around the world. The video, recorded in April 2004 and taken from an upper storey of a building in the southern Iraqi town of Al-Amarah, shows a group of Iraqis outside a coalition compound. Following an altercation in which members of the crowd tossed rocks and reportedly an improvised grenade at the soldiers, the British soldiers rushed the crowd. The troopers brought some Iraqi teenagers into the compound and proceeded to beat them. The video includes a voiceover in a British accent by the cameraman, taunting the beaten teenagers. The Royal Military Police conducted an investigation into the event, and the prosecuting authorities determined that there was insufficient case to justify court martial proceedings.

War crimes are unforgivable stains on our collective character; we forfeit tiny pieces of our humanity whenever cruelty or barbarity on this scale happen anywhere in the world, by one human being against another. We should be ashamed of them, and of the people who perform them. I can only hope that, whenever they are uncovered, we treat the perpetrators equally. I don’t think we do, to be frank, and that needs to change. The ICC needs to be given more teeth and more powers to bring war criminals to justice, and we should all be furious that they’re not more powerful.

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