I AM CONSTANTLY ASTONISHED at how blithely unconscious the West is of its own transgressions. That the International Criminal Court (ICC) could announce its decision to issue a warrant for the arrest of Vladimir Putin a mere three days ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the United States’, the United Kingdom’s, Australia’s and Poland’s illegal invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003 shows just how morally comatose the West has become.
Twenty years ago, President George Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prime Minister John Howard and the Polish premier, Leszek Miller, ordered a massive airborne attack and an all-out armoured assault upon a nation that was at peace with its neighbours and, which had made no aggressive moves against any of the nations whose armed forces were pouring across its borders. Unsurprisingly, a large number of the world’s nations condemned the invasion of Iraq as a breach of the UN Charter and international law. Millions of people around the world, with considerable justification, branded Bush, Blair, Howard and Miller war criminals. Certainly, the invasion they authorised led directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human-beings.
So, why didn’t the ICC, which had come into formal existence on the 1 July 2002, issue warrants for the arrest of Bush, Blair, Howard and Miller? Were they not guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity? Had they not involved themselves in what the prosecutors at the Nuremburg Trials called “the crime of crimes” – the planning, preparation and waging of aggressive war? The crime for which the surviving Nazi leaders were hanged in 1946.
From the grim perspective of the world of realpolitik, the reason why the ICC decided not to prosecute the four aggressors is obvious: the United States is simply “too big to punish”. Not only did the USA refuse to recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC over United States citizens, but every diplomat and jurist worthy of the name understood that any attempt to arrest George W. Bush would provoke a reaction of truly biblical proportions.
But, if the USA is too big to punish, why isn’t the Russian Federation? Russia’s economy may be roughly the size of Italy’s, but it’s nuclear arsenal is more than capable of laying human civilisation to waste. Threatening to arrest Putin - especially when the Russian Federation and the rest of the United Nations are recalling the illegal invasion of Iraq twenty years ago – is an astonishingly provocative act.
Now, some of those reading these words will object that they are nothing more than an egregious example of “whataboutism”. If Putin stands accused of illegally deporting thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, then he should be put on trial for his actions – not let off because Bush, Blair, Howard and Miller were not held accountable for theirs. Crying “What about Iraq?!” is an irrelevant question – it has no bearing on the case against Putin.
Except, of course, it does. The application of justice must not only be even-handed, it must be seen to be even-handed. If the public had witnessed the child of a rich and powerful family engaging in clearly dangerous and illegal activity, and then seen the Police refuse to bring charges against him because his family was simply too rich and too powerful, they would be disgusted. And if they then saw the child of a poor and powerless family brought to trial for exactly the same offences, they would be outraged. Prosecuting the poor, but not the rich, child would, quite rightly, be regarded as a travesty of justice. What’s more, the court responsible would be utterly discredited in the eyes of all fair-minded people.
Two-and-a-half thousand years ago, a Scythian prince named Anacharsis had this to say about Ancient Athens’ celebrated legal code: “Written laws are like spiders’ webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful.”
The USA has proved the truth of Anacharsis’ observation by simply overawing the ICC’s timid prosecutors. Twenty years on from its failure to hold the invaders of Iraq to account, however, the ICC clearly believes that the Russian President is too weak to tear its legal web in pieces.
But who would be the person who arrests Putin? Or the country that tries to hold him?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 March 2023.