Monbiot on war crimes case in Belgium

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Posted by Andreas from ( on Wednesday, May 21, 2003 at 1:47AM :

Blair's Grand Mistake

The war crimes case in Belgium illustrates the folly of Blair's belief that
the US is interested in justice
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 20th May 2003

Belgium is becoming an interesting country. In the course of a week, it has
managed to upset both liberal opinion in Europe - by granting the far-right
Vlaams Blok 18 parliamentary seats - and illiberal opinion in the United
States. On Wednesday, a human rights lawyer filed a case with the federal
prosecutors whose purpose is to arraign Thomas Franks, the commander of the
American troops in Iraq, for crimes against humanity. This may be the only
judicial means, anywhere on earth, of holding the US government to account
for its actions.
The case has been filed in Belgium, on behalf of 17 Iraqis and two
Jordanians, because Belgium has a law permitting foreigners to be tried for
war crimes, irrespective of where they were committed. The suit has little
chance of success, for the law was hastily amended by the government at the
beginning of this month. But the fact that the plaintiffs had no choice but
to seek redress in Belgium speaks volumes about the realities of Tony
Blair's vision for a world order led by the US, built on democracy and

Franks appears to have a case to answer. The charges fall into four
categories: the use of cluster bombs; the killing of civilians by other
means; attacks on the infrastructure essential for public health and the
failure to prevent the looting of hospitals. There is plenty of supporting

US forces dropped around 1500 cluster bombs from the air and fired an
unknown quantity from artillery pieces. British troops fired 2100.2 Each
contained several hundred bomblets, which fragment into shrapnel. Between
200 and 372 Iraqi civilians were killed by them during the war.3 Others,
mostly children, continue to be killed by those bomblets which failed to
explode when they hit the ground. The effects of their deployment in
residential areas were both predictable and predicted. This suggests that
their use there breached protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, which
prohibits "violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being"
of non-combatants.4

On several occasions, US troops appear to have opened fire on unarmed
civilians. In Nasiriya, they shot at any vehicle that approached their
positions. In one night alone, they killed 12 civilians.5 On a bridge on the
outskirts of Baghdad, they shot 15 in two days.6 Last month, US troops fired
on peaceful demonstrators in Mosul, killing seven, and in Fallujah, killing
13 and injuring 75.7 All these actions appear to offend the 4th convention.

The armed forces also deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructure,
bombing the electricity lines upon which water treatment plants depended,
with the result that cholera and dysentery have spread. Protocol II
prohibits troops from attacking "objects indispensable to the survival of
the civilian population such as ... drinking water installations and

The 4th convention also insists that an occupying power is responsible for
"ensuring and maintaining ... the medical and hospital establishments and
services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory".9 Yet when
the US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked why his troops had failed
to prevent the looting of public buildings, he replied, "Stuff happens. Free
people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."10
Many hospitals remain closed or desperately under-supplied.

On several occasions, US soldiers acted on orders to fire at Iraqi
ambulances, killing or wounding their occupants.11 They shot at the medical
crews which came to retrieve the dead and wounded at the demonstration in
Fallujah.12 The Geneva Conventions suggest that these are straightforward
war crimes: "medical units and transports shall be respected and protected
at all times and shall not be the object of attack."13

The armed forces of the United States, in other words, appear to have taken
short cuts while prosecuting their war with Iraq. Some of these may have
permitted them to conclude their war more swiftly, but at the expense of the
civilian population. Repeatedly, in some cases systematically, US soldiers
appear to have broken the laws of war.

We should not be surprised to learn that the US government has responded to
the suit with outrage. The State Department has warned Belgium that it will
punish nations which permit their laws to be used for "political ends". The
Belgian government hasn't waited to discover what this means. It has amended
the law and denounced the lawyer who filed the case.

The Bush government's response would doubtless be explained by its
apologists as a measure of its insistence upon and respect for national
sovereignty. But while the US forbids other nations to proscribe the actions
of its citizens, it also insists that its own laws should apply abroad. The
Foreign Sovereignty Immunities Act, for example, permits the US courts to
prosecute foreigners for harming commercial interests in the United States,
even if they are breaking no laws within their own countries. The
Helms-Burton Act allows the courts in America to confiscate the property of
foreign companies which do business with Cuba. The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act
instructs the government to punish foreign firms investing in the oil or gas
sectors in those countries. The message these laws send is this: you can't
prosecute us, but we can prosecute you.

Of course, the sensible means of resolving legal disputes between nations is
the use of impartial, multinational tribunals, such as the International
Criminal Court in the Hague. But impartial legislation is precisely what the
US government will not contemplate. When the ICC treaty was being
negotiated, the United States demanded that its troops should be exempt from
prosecution, and the UN Security Council gave it what it wanted. The US also
helped to ensure that the court's writ runs only in the nations which have
ratified the treaty. Its soldiers in Iraq would thus have been exempt in any
case, as Saddam Hussein's government was one of seven which voted against
the formation of the court in 1998. The others were China, Israel, Libya,
Qatar, Yemen and the United States.19 This is the company the American
government keeps when it comes to international law.
To ensure that there was not the slightest possibility that his servicemen
need fear the rule of law, last year George Bush signed a new piece of
extra-territorial legislation, which permits the US "to use all means
necessary and appropriate to bring about the release" of US citizens being
tried in the court.14 This appears to include the invasion of the capital of
the Netherlands.

All this serves to illustrate the grand mistake Tony Blair is making. The
empire he claims to influence entertains no interest in his moral posturing.
Its vision of justice between nations is the judicial oubliette of
Guantanamo Bay. The idea that it might be subject to the international rule
of law, and therefore belong to a world order in which other nations can
participate, is as unthinkable in Washington as a six-month public holiday.
If Blair does not understand this, he has missed the entire point of US
foreign policy. If he does understand it, he has misled us as to the purpose
of his own diplomacy. The US government does not respect the law between
nations. It is the law.

1. The Facts Files on this case can be viewed here Most of the sources
referenced here are cited on this page.
2. ibid
4. Article 4, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August
1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed
Conflicts (Protocol II), 8 June 1977.
5. Mark Franchetti, 30th March 2003. US Marines Turn Fire on Civilians at
the Bridge of Death. The Times.
6. Michel Guerrin, 13th April 2003. J'ai vu des marines américains tuer des
civils. Le Monde.
7. Eg Associated Press, 29th April 2003. U.S. soldiers fire on Iraqi
protesters; hospital chief says 13 Iraqis are dead.
8. Article 14, Protocol II, ibid
9. Article 56, Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian
Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
10. Brian Whitaker, 12th April 2003. Free to do bad things. The Guardian.
11. eg AFP, 10th April 2003. US troops fire on ambulance, two killed.
12. eg Associated Press, 29th April 2003. U.S. soldiers fire on Iraqi
protesters; hospital chief says 13 Iraqis are dead.
13. Article 11, Protocol II, ibid.
14. Section 2008, The American Servicemembers' Protection Act, 2002

-- Andreas
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