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By creating a United Nations war crimes tribunal, says Sharon Clarke, Western governments are putting the rest of the world in the dock

Why they love a good war crime

What better than a war crimes tribunal to demonstrate the West's right to sit in judgement on the rest of the world?

The United Nations Security Council has decided to set up an international tribunal to try those accused of war crimes in Yugoslavia. It is the first attempt to prosecute alleged war criminals since the Nazis were put in the dock at Nuremberg.

Those who complain that nothing will come of it, because there are too many legal and political complications, miss the point. It doesn't matter if the 11 Western-appointed judges never convict anybody. That the court exists, and is internationally recognised as legitimate, will be sufficient for the purposes of the Western powers. It will confirm their moral authority around the globe.

When it comes into operation in September, the war crimes tribunal is due to concentrate on the civil war in Yugoslavia. But there is already talk of widening its remit to cover crimes committed by African warlords, Iraqi generals and others. Soon Western-appointed judges could be prying into the affairs of every third world state and passing judgement on their peoples.

The assumption behind the West's war crimes initiative is that the source of violence and barbarism is to be found over there - in the East and the third world. By comparison, the great and the good over here are assumed to have clean hands, and be qualified to decide the fate of the guilty.

The accused

What the war crimes discussion means is that some of the poorest and most powerless peoples on Earth are being blamed for causing war and oppression around the world, while the wealthy and powerful in the West are absolved of all guilt. 'They' are held responsible for the crimes; 'we' are responsible for meting out the punishment.

What is a war crime anyway? The term has now been accepted into the everyday language of international politics. Yet closer inspection suggests that there is really no such thing as a war crime. The notion of war crimes and war criminals is an ideological construction, used to brand those of whom the Western powers disapprove - and, by implication, to boost the moral credentials of the West itself.

The discussion of war criminals assumes that atrocities are committed by a few particularly evil men with a propensity to behave like barbarians. The implication of singling out war criminals in this way is that other combatants act like gentlemen during a war, and are guilty of nothing. In reality, war creates an environment in which all are brutalised. Atrocities are committed on all sides of every conflict. In war, anybody can become capable of doing things which were unthinkable beforehand; but some have a lot more power than others with which to do it.

The strange thing is, however, that massacres are not called war crimes when they are carried out by those with the most power to commit atrocities - the forces of the USA, Britain or their allies. Since the Nazi trials at the end of the Second World War, there has been no mention of war crimes: not when the Americans slaughtered an estimated four million people during the war in Vietnam and Cambodia; nor when the British conducted massacres while putting down anti-colonial rebellions in Kenya, Aden and Malaya; nor when British paratroopers shot dead 14 Irish civilians on Bloody Sunday; nor when the French tortured and killed Algerians who resisted their rule; nor, most recently, when the US-led alliance killed perhaps 200 000 Iraqis in the Gulf War, using everything from napalm to fuel-air explosives which suck the oxygen out of the lungs.

Of course, there have been occasions in the past when US or British forces were accused of going too far. But the inquiries and commissions reluctantly set up in response have not been declared as grandiose international tribunals, and have never suggested that the accused be considered war criminals. Indeed the common concern has been to play down the importance of these incidents, and to let those responsible off as lightly as possible.

The classic colonial example came in April 1919, when British Brigadier-General REH Dyer sought to teach rebellious natives a lesson by ordering his troops to fire unprovoked on a crowd of thousands in the Indian city of Amritsar. A fusillade of 1650 rounds left, according to official figures, 379 dead and hundreds more maimed. The Amritsar massacre created unrest across India. The British imperial authorities responded by imposing martial law, and setting up an inquiry into the killings. A year later the Hunter Committee reported; it whitewashed the massacre, suggesting only that Dyer be 'severely censured'. The House of Lords then condoned Dyer's actions, and a group of Empire loyalists presented him with a sword and a purse of £20 000.

Four hours

The modern American equivalent of Amritsar was probably the My Lai massacre of 1968, when US troops wiped out an entire Vietnamese village in four hours. The details of the massacre remained a US army secret for 18 months, until they were revealed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh in the New York Times in November 1969. Lieutenant William Calley was then tried - by the army's internal court martial - on charges of killing at least 109 'Oriental human beings', one of them two years old. In 1971 Calley was sentenced to life with hard labour. He appealed, and the sentence was reduced to 20 years. He appealed again, and it became 10 years. He appealed once more, and was released in 1975. On the personal orders of president Nixon, Calley served his sentence under 'house arrest', in his army apartment. He did not spend one day in prison.

Dyer, Calley and many other Western commanders whose massacres are well documented have never been considered war criminals or paraded in chains before the world. Yet unknown Serbian, Croatian and third world soldiers, with only a fraction of the destructive firepower at the disposal of the West, have already been found guilty of war crimes by the Western media before the tribunal is even set up. Clearly the category 'war crime' has nothing to do with the numbers killed or the circumstances in which they died. It is a political label, invented by the Western allies to be stuck on to foreigners as they see fit.

The capitalist powers love a good war crime story from Yugoslavia or Somalia because it makes the West look morally superior, and lends legitimacy to its self-image as the force for civilisation on Earth. That is a particularly valuable political asset for them today, when the governing parties and institutions of the West are all facing crises of legitimacy.

In 1993, no political party can excite public support, and no established institution commands much respect. The British monarchy is up to its neck in scandal, leading Italian politicians are all accused of belonging to the mafia, president Bill Clinton's honeymoon period proved shorter than Bill Wyman's...in different ways, the pattern is repeated across the West. The combination of economic slump and political exhaustion has thrown the governmental systems of Europe and the USA into disarray.

Against that background, it is not hard to see why the Western elites are so keen to criminalise and condemn people in other parts of the world, to find an external focus through which to demonstrate their authority. Branding the East or the third world as a threat to civilised values is a backhanded way of advertising the comparative virtues of Western capitalism.

Fix bayonets

This is the significance of the UN decision to set up a war crimes tribunal. It institutionalises the distinction between a morally superior West and the inferior peoples of the rest of the world. By condemning selected foreigners as war criminals in this way, the Western authorities seek to get themselves off the hook at home. In effect they are saying, 'Look, whatever you might think of our system, just thank God that you don't have to contend with these barbarians'. The global scourge of war, for which the Western powers are primarily responsible, is twisted into an argument for the defence of their authority.

In 1982, when British troops recaptured the Falkland Islands from Argentina, they were hailed as old-fashioned heroes who had gallantly 'yomped' their way to victory. A decade later, evidence has finally surfaced that British paratroopers bayoneted and shot Argentine prisoners of war. Scotland Yard has reluctantly been prodded into investigating. But even if any Paras were to be charged, we can be sure that they will not end up in the UN tribunal dock with the Serbs and the rest.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Tory chairman of the commons defence committee, recently made clear that, regardless of the facts about the bloodshed in the South Atlantic, British squaddies never, never, never shall be war criminals. 'I think it is an insult to them', he declared, 'to suggest that we committed war crimes'. In other words, it is not necessarily a war crime to bayonet an unarmed prisoner. It all depends who is on either end of the bayonet.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993

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