The Occupation as War Crime
The Occupation as War Crime
Following the revelations of prisoner abuse and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, the swirl of apologia, controversy, and debate has managed to avoid a basic truth: the occupation is essentially one giant war crime, and there's no longer a way for it to be anything but a war crime, which is why it has to end now; not be fixed, not improved, not stayed-the-course. Ended.
As the internationally recognized occupying power in Iraq, the United States and other members of the coalition are obligated under UN Security Council Resolution 1483 of May 22, 2003 to "promote the welfare of the Iraqi people through the effective administration of the territory, including in particular working towards the restoration of conditions of security and stability and the creation of conditions in which the Iraqi people can freely determine their own political future." More broadly, the resolution also calls upon the coalition to "comply fully with their obligations under international law." What this means is that the coalition -- in practice, the Americans and the British -- must assure humane treatment for the civilian population (under Article 27 of the 4th Geneva Convention) and permit life in Iraq to continue as unaffected by its presence as possible.
At the same time it must ensure the public order, safety and welfare of the Iraqi people. This includes using all the means at its disposal to meet the basic food (Article 50), health (Articles 20, 50, 55, 56 and 59, among others), and education needs (Article 50) of the population. Moreover, Articles 68 and 69 of Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions (which is accepted as customary international law by the U.S. even though it hasn't signed the Protocol) reaffirm as a central obligation the provision of medical care while adding the requirement to provide "clothing, bedding, means of shelter and other supplies essential to the survival of the civilian population."
The problem of possibly systematic
If millions are threatened, then thousands are surely dying. Some of this I saw myself in a recent visit to
Though the issue of war crimes is almost inescapable in
Given the lack of coverage of such an important issue, perhaps Americans should take a minute next time they're online to actually read the 4th Geneva Convention. Or they could simply read the US Army Field Manual 27-10. If we assume that, among the thousands of people in coalition prisons, significant numbers aren't simply civilians arbitrarily detained in sweeps of supposed insurgent neighborhoods (which is probably not a good assumption), then this manual clearly defines prisoners like the ones in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos as "prisoners of war," since the Army considers "members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements" (art. 61(2)) as falling under this category.
And so "softening them up" for interrogation, as several of the soldiers now charged with their abuse have said they were ordered (or was it merely asked?) to do, is expressly prohibited both according to U.S. military law and the 4th Geneva Convention. Yet both the U.S and British armed forces have special training camps to teach their military intelligence personnel techniques -- code named "R2I" (Resistance to Interrogation)--to do just what was done at Abu Ghraib. In other words, they are literally training their soldiers to commit war crimes as part of the normal practice of war.
This is not an issue of soldiers exceeding their authority. It's an issue of the commander-in-chief of the
Indeed, well before the circulation of the torture photos, evidence of war crimes was in the morning newspaper, for those who cared to note it. To take but one example, in the midst of cease-fire negotiations in the city of
The sad reality is that evidence of systematic war crimes in
And so to Iraqis and much of the rest of the world -- but not most shocked Americans -- the torture photos did not reveal an isolated phenomenon; they reflected a larger well-known structural problem (at the heart of which was the commission of "war crimes" as defined both by American military manuals and by international law). The situation had, in fact, become so bad that UN special envoy to Iraq Lakdar Brahimi alluded to the problem of war crimes This Week when speaking of the situation in Falluja. He asked ABC News' George Stephanopoulous, "When you surround a city, you bomb the city, when people cannot go to hospital, what name do you have for that?" Indeed, only weeks after the occupation began a group of Belgian doctors who have spent the last year in Baghdad explained that, whatever crimes might be committed by Iraqis, as the internationally recognized belligerent occupiers "the current humanitarian catastrophe is entirely and solely the responsibility of the US and British authorities." Even that early into the occupation they documented violations of at least a dozen articles of the 4th Geneva Convention by coalition forces (including articles 10, 12, 15, 21, 35, 36, 41, 45, 47, 48, 51, and 55).
Countrywide, beyond the decrepit health, education, and infrastructure systems, of the estimated over ten thousand civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces, many would certainly qualify as war crimes as defined in Article 147 of the 4th Geneva Convention as well as Article 3 of the Hague Tribunal statute -- which was drafted in large part by the U.S. as the basis for trials of war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. (It describes the "wanton destruction... or devastation not justified by military necessity [and] attack, or bombardment, by whatever means, of undefended towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings, [and] the seizure of, destruction or willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education..." as war crimes). In fact, a recent New York Times article describing battlefield baptisms of American soldiers taking place in the yard of a Falluja elementary school commandeered by US forces completely missed the fact that seizing the school (not to mention preventing students from continuing their studies) would, under Article 3 of the Hague Tribunal statute and the above mentioned articles of the 4th Geneva Convention, be considered war crimes.
Moreover, there are at least 8,000 Iraqis being held without charge in what were previously Saddam's prisons as well as new detention camps set up by the Coalition forces, 70-90% of whom coalition military intelligence officials (according to the International Red Cross) now admit were likely arrested by mistake. Since almost none (if indeed any) of them have been charged with and convicted of a crime, or defined as prisoners of war (a label it seems the U.S. will only willing to bestow on Iraqi soldiers captured during the invasion last year), their detention is a war crime under Geneva IV (articles 17, 18, 33 and 147), which states that "no protected person [that is, civilian] may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited." And prohibited as well is the detention of relatives of wanted persons ("the taking of hostages" in Articles 34, 53 and 147) and the destruction of homes of suspected insurgents or their families (Article 147), all of which have been widely reported in the international, and especially Arab press, and generally more grudgingly in the American press, and admitted to by U.S. forces.
The silence of much of the political opposition in our country on the most essential aspects of the war and occupation is making the issue of war crimes particularly damaging to
When I'm outside the US, whether in the Muslim world, Europe or almost anywhere else, people invariably ask me why Americans don't care that their country is violating the very principles of international law the U.S. helped design. Some might say it isn't fair that the occupiers, and not the occupied, are the only ones facing international condemnation and even prosecution for the violence. And in fact, while under international humanitarian law Iraqi civilians have no obligation of loyalty towards the occupying power, they are also prohibited by international humanitarian law from violently resisting the occupation or attempting to liberate Iraq., and according to Article 5 of the 4th Geneva Convention can in fact be detained by the coalition if they are "definitely suspected" of engaging in violent opposition.
But however bloody or criminal the actions of the Iraqi insurgency, the onus is on the coalition, as Iraq's internationally recognized occupying power, to conduct itself strictly according to international law. In this context, expressions of "disgust" or even apologies, however slow in coming, by President Bush or Prime Minister Blair, or promises of "independent" investigations by people connected to the occupying powers are meaningless, while admissions that the abuses at Abu Ghraib are "systematic" are misleading if the system referred to is only the prison system, and not the occupation as a whole.
As a matter of fact, the rest of the world is not just sitting back watching events unfold. There have already been attempts to indict
The first would be the indictment of Tony Blair and other senior British officials at the International Criminal Court, to which
Given the possibilities, why is the peace movement not moving on this issue? Certainly it can't be because it's not relevant to the larger issues of peace and justice in
As damaging to the image and credibility of the United States, millions of people around the world -- yes, egged on by al-Jazeera (which increasingly feels like the Arab equivalent of Fox News), but also informed by the BBC, Le Monde or al-Hayat -- will believe that the United States has arrogated to itself the right to engage in practices it correctly condemns when done by other states it defines as enemies. If such perceptions and the reality shaping them are not changed soon, not only will Iraq descend into chaos and large-scale violence out of which -- if past wars of liberation are any indication -- it will take years to emerge, but the larger war on terror, for whose benefit Iraq was ostensibly occupied, will surely be lost, with grave consequences for the entire world.
Mark LeVine, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is the co-editor, with Pilar Perez and Viggo Mortensen, of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation (Perceval Press, 2003) and author of the forthcoming Why They Don't Hate Us: Islam and the World in the Age of Globalization (Oneworld Publications, 2004).
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]