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.
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
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.
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