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.
“Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”
Are you really astonished at the hypocrisy of the powerful?...I suspect not.
The bizarre part of the United States' endorsement of the charges against Vladimir Putin is that the US is not only NOT a signatory to the UN system of international jurisprudence, the US doesn't even recognize the International Criminal Court (ICC). The US has even gone so far as (a) to threaten sanctions against any ICC official who dares to investigate US war crimes, and (b) has enshrined within its body of legislation the option of using its military 'to liberate' any American person or personnel being held at the Hague.
I am not making this up.
As it turns out, nor has Russia signed on to the ICC. So id the US is out of the ICC's jurisdiction, so is Russia.
But you have to ask: precisely what war crime has Vladimir Putin committed?
No, it is NOT obvious. Especially has we have the word of Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's front boy and head honcho (vice the US State Department, I suspect) that this has been NATO's war since 2014 (something I bally well knew all along). It is worth recalling the behaviour of NATO and its membership in respect (inter alia) of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The only person who appeared in front of the ICC in any of those ... episodes... has been Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. Guess what? He was acquitted (albeit postumously). His real crime amounted to having incurred the mislike of Madeleine Allbright - a raving bigot - the US and NATO.
So if no war crime has been committed by the West in respect of those disasters - which a credulous mind might infer from the lack of charges brought or warrants of arrest issued - then President Putin and Russia have committed no crime.
Ion A. Dowman
True to a point but they but did they believe their intelligence reports around weapons of mass destruction ? Putin wants to conquer Ukraine and it to be integrated into the Russian Federation permanently.
A very interesting article.
A few days before the invasion Bill English and I met John Howard in Wellington. Howard was obviously very vexed by the prospect of the invasion. He felt Australia had to stand by its principal ally. The relationship was too fundamental to Australian security and he was not willing to jeopardise that. He seemed to think that New Zealand had more choices in that regard. It was my perception that he wasn't wholly convinced by the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Had they indisputably existed, would that have even been a sufficient breach of international law to justify a full scale invasion?
Howard decided he would deploy what he clearly considered to be the minimum risk for Australian service people (though not for Iraqis), and that was the deployment of one squadron of F18's. I understand that the pilots were under strict instructions to only engage military targets that had no risk of civilian casualties. The Australians suffered no casualties.
I likened it to the deployment of a NZ artillery battery in Vietnam. The minimum you could get away with and still be considered an ally. At least in Vietnam, there was an invitation by a legal government, that of South Vietnam.
Now I will admit that I was wrong about Iraq, and that Helen Clark did the right thing. In fact she was cleverer than that statement indicates.
She knew she had to do something to help preserve the US relationship. In November/December 2002 she declared NZ would deploy a frigate to the Gulf, a P3 for surveillance in the Gulf, an Engineer Squadron to Iraq in the event of a UN resolution, which there was after the invasion, a PRT to Afghanistan and the SAS to Afghanistan (probably an extension of the initial deployment) and a C130 to Kyrgyzstan.
In late January 2003 I saw the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who I knew quite well, at a social function. I said to him that NZ must have done a deal with the US. His reply was "What's wrong with that?" I was taken aback but said "Well, actually nothing". The deal probably also included that the PM not be too directly critical of the US, and by and large she stuck to that. Though not always. The US officials were somewhat miffed about that, but nothing came of it.
In short I think the Iraq situation is a bit different to that of Ukraine. The US did believe, though mistakenly, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Rich Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, was telling me a year later in his office that the US would find the weapons. He must have been able to tell that I didn't believe him. It seemed incredulous to me that high US officials could still persist with that, though I suppose it was what he actually believed.
In contrast the Russian attack was done secretly without any real pretence that Ukraine was a serial wrong doer, except that they are all Nazis. Both the invasion and the subsequent actions of at least some Russian troops have been a more blatant breach of international law than the US invasion, though I do accept that it was also a breach that has had long running consequences for the region. But it also has meant that some parts of the world, notably in Africa and the Middle East, have not been willing to condemn the invasion. In that sense the US and allies have suffered a long run set back to their international standing arising from the Iraq invasion.
Even if the US had got UN authorisation, which I would note they did get for the occupation and installation of the new government, it was that part which was actually the much bigger failure, with many civilian casualties. It also ultimately led to ISIS. Defeating ISIS did have UN approval. But Iraq and Syria have still to recover from the impact of ISIS. And at least in part the origins of the turmoil of the last twenty years lies with the initial invasion.
Yeap, lots of examples of this hypocrisy.
Latest example today is the EU threatening more sanctions (if that was even possible) against Russia for basing Nuclear weapons in Belarus. Yet the US has for decades based nuclear weapons in a number of European countries.
Does the charge sheet against Putin include the aerial assault on the civilian population and infrastructure? And if it doesn't, shouldn't it?
If it does, it would be against the precedent set at Nuremburg. The Nazis were not charged at Nuremberg with air attack on civilian populations. That certainly wasn't because they hadn't done it. It was because the accused could have said, truthfully, "you did much worse to us" and asked "on this charge, who are the worst criminals?" They could have pointed to the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg. Even the breaching of the German dams by the Dambusters would, at least by modern standards, be considered a war crime.
At least one of those carrying out the Allied aerial assault knew perfectly well they were committing war crimes. US Air Force general Curtis LeMay was responsible for the most devastating aerial attack on a city ever recorded, the fire bombing of Tokyo in 1945. It caused a firestorm that destroyed a bigger area, and killed more people, than the later atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But before the atom bombs, the 67 largest urban areas in Japan had already been devastated by the firebombing campaign. Hiroshima was spared the firebombing, but only so that the effects of an atom bomb on a previously undamaged city could be studied.
LeMay himself said he would have been tried as a war criminal if he had lost. But he didn't, so he wasn't. Instead, he went on to lead the Strategic Air Command, the USAF cold war nuclear strike force. (He was satirized in the film "Dr Strangelove", as the totally paranoid General Jack D Ripper).
LeMay can't be accused of either hypocrisy, or a lack of self awareness. The reality, however, is that "war criminal" is just an epithet the winners call the losers.
Interesting this article has just been published by George Friedman from Geopolitical Futures
The Necessity of the Iraq War
"The Nazis were not charged at Nuremberg with air attack on civilian populations. That certainly wasn't because they hadn't done it. It was because the accused could have said, truthfully, "you did much worse to us" and asked "on this charge, who are the worst criminals?"
AFAIK there was nothing in international law at the time that said you couldn't. The morality of it might be a different story. But even if there was something in international law, you could claim that you were bombing military targets, and it's not as if bombers at the time had the accuracy to hit them without hitting everything else around them.
Harris I think made the case that bombing worker housing was destroying morale and slowing industrial production. The latter might even have been true.
The better comparison might be unrestricted submarine warfare, which was I think technically illegal, but anything but was practically impossible.
This is a far better analysis of the second Iraq war.
I saw the move as being more of a PR stunt to keep contol of the narrative. Maybe a way to signal to the Russian people that they should be thinking insurrection because the rest of the world is coming for Putin.
Everyone knows the ICJ? is toothless and doesnt have any enforcement powers. Many people have dodged its charges over the years so I believe the move was more political than an escalation of the war (But I defer to others who know more)
“…a nation that was at peace with its neighbours…” Given that Iraq continuously attacked Kurds, had invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, and that a good many countries in the region wanted Saddam Hussein gone, not least because he was a Baathist Arab nationalist opposed to the rise of fundamentalist Islam, would you care to revise that statement, Chris?
Paul Berman in The New Republic of 14/9/2012 summed things up – “In Iraq, the Baath ruled for 35 years, chiefly under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, and this meant repeated military campaigns and acts of extermination against Iraq’s Kurdish population (Baathism is anti-Kurd), against Iran (Baathism, in its Iraqi version, is anti-Persian), against Kuwait, and against Iraq’s Shiite population. Baathism’s principal rivals in the matter of grandiose revolutionary ideology—the champions of the single Middle Eastern millenarian doctrine still standing, once the Assad regime has finally gone, will be the Islamists. The slogan is “Unity, Freedom, Socialism.” “The Baath is scientific socialism plus spirit,” said Aflaq in the ’60s, which suggested that Baathism, having already claimed to be an addendum to Islam, was also an addendum to Karl Marx.”
Grant Wyeth in What About Whataboutery says “Whataboutery can best be described as a political perspective that believes two wrongs do make a right…an inability to understand the world outside of group competition…driven by the instinctive, rather than the rational, part of the brain.”
Have you seen Jon Stewart's defence of prosecution of Trump? The law is the law. It helps us move forward.
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