Beyond accountability

by Vijay Prashad

Destroyed homes in Majar, Libya, after it was hit by a NATO bomb on August 9, 2011. Twenty-eight people, some of them women and children, died. PHOTO/Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

A report by Amnesty International details the horrific war crimes committed by the U.S. in Raqqa, Syria. Yet, as in similar incidents earlier, the U.S. can be expected to sabotage further investigations.

Outside the United Nations’ building in New York City, an activist stands with a sign that lists the instances of United States-led regime change in the past few decades. The long and gruesome list begins with Afghanistan, where untold numbers of civilians have been killed over 17 years of war, and ends with the names of countries followed by question marks: Syria, Iran and Venezuela. Will the U.S. and its allies launch wars of aggression against these states and overthrow their governments? The activist is a gentle person, worried about war and climate change. Few people pay attention to the sign. The U.N. is busy today, as it often is during the week. No one notices the vigil of this activist.

Looking at the sign is chilling. Afghanistan and Iraq head the list of countries that have been obliterated. There is no account of the number of people who have died in these countries as a result of the sanctions policy (against Iraq in the 1990s) and of the terrible wars. A year ago, I asked a member of the Iraqi government if he knew the actual number of people who had died as a result of the sanctions and the war. He had a grim expression on his face when he said that he did not know these numbers and neither did he think that the government had such figures.

A Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report in 1995 said that the U.S. sanctions policy against Iraq had killed, at that time, 5,67,000 children. On “60 Minutes” (a television news magazine broadcast by CBS, U.S.), the journalist Leslie Stahl put this report to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” She did not contest the FAO study. “I think this is a very hard choice,” she said, “but the price, we think the price is worth it.” That report came out a decade before the U.S. began its major attack on Iraq in 2003. The death toll is much higher, infinitely higher, tragically higher. But no one knows the actual number. That is just Iraq. If you add Afghanistan and the other theatres of the “Global War on Terror”, the number will increase dramatically.

Official investigations into these wars by the U.S. have not been forthcoming. The government has not conducted any serious formal inquiry into its wars. There has been no retrospective look at the arguments made for a war, such as the war in Iraq, in order to gauge the merits of that argument at the end of the war. There has been no real investigation into the death toll and, in particular, into the death of civilians. Sporadic investigations occur for serious war crimes by individuals, but these are often focussed on individual actions and are not seen to be part of the broader way in which the wars are fought and in which countries are destroyed.

The New York Times was able to secure a 439-page internal report about the attempt in the U.S. military to silence seven Navy SEALs from making remarks about war crimes committed by one of their own, Chief Special Warfare Operator Eddie Gallagher. Gallagher allegedly killed an unarmed Islamic State (I.S.) fighter with his hunting knife and fired on civilians with his sniper rifle in Iraq in 2017. When his teammates raised objections, Gallagher was reported to have threatened to kill them if they spoke up. He was arrested in September 2018 and held in the Naval brig (a military prison in a naval or Marine Corps base) in San Diego. It turns out that when Gallagher’s teammates in his SEAL team, 7 Alpha Platoon, complained to their troop commander, they were told to “stop talking about it”. It took a great deal of persistence by these soldiers for this alleged war crime to be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began an investigation into U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan about a decade ago. Two years ago, the court released a preliminary finding that suggested that war crimes had most likely been committed. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made statements threatening the court if it acted on this evidence. Bolton said the members of the court might be slapped with sanctions by the U.S., while Pompeo said that the chief prosecutor would be denied a U.S. visa to testify at the U.N. Security Council. After the prosecutor was denied her visa in April 2019, the ICC withdrew its investigation. It was this kind of hard-edged pressure that ended any talk of systematic war crimes in Afghanistan.

The refusal to allow an investigation of war crimes is a problem not only in the U.S. but also at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) headquarters in Brussels. The war on Libya came swiftly in 2011, with massive ordnance dropped by French and U.S. aircraft on Tripoli and elsewhere. Journalists and human rights investigators were struck by the visible evidence of human rights violations. But these were not taken seriously. Pressure on the U.N. from countries in Africa moved them to ask NATO to account for the bombings and the civilian casualties. NATO refused. Its legal adviser Peter Olson wrote that the “NATO incidents”, as he called them, were not crimes. “We would accordingly request,” he concluded in a letter of February 15, 2012, “that, in the event that the commission elects to include a discussion of NATO actions in Libya, its report clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya.” No investigation was needed. It was simply unthinkable, NATO wrote, that the West could commit war crimes.

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