March 19: A day of infamy and unaccountability
In a report released today, the first anniversary of the launching of the U.S./NATO bombing campaign against Libya, Amnesty International documents that “scores of Libyan civilians who were not involved in the fighting were killed and many more injured, most in their homes, as a result of NATO airstrikes” in the bombing campaign to depose Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
“The strikes were launched pursuant to UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1973 (2011) of 17 March 2011,” the report reads, “which authorized member states ‘to take all necessary measures (…) to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’ and introduced a ‘no fly zone’ above Libya.”
But while acknowledging that NATO appeared to have taken certain precautions to minimize civilian casualties of the bombing campaign, the U.S.-led alliance nevertheless killed unacceptable numbers of Libyans and injured many more.
“Regrettably,” says Amnesty International, “more than four months since the end of the military campaign, NATO has yet to address these incidents appropriately, including by establishing contact and providing information to the victims and their relatives about any investigation which might have been initiated.”
The human rights organization said that “adequate investigations must be carried out and full reparation provided to victims and their families.”
Amnesty’s report comes on the heels of another report released in January by a coalition of human rights groups in the Middle East that presented exhaustively researched evidence of war crimes carried out in Libya by the United States and NATO during last year’s intervention.
Basing its work “primarily, and to the greatest extent possible, on information gathered firsthand,” the Independent Civil Society Fact-Finding Mission to Libya found that “a significant percentage of the sites” targeted by NATO “were clearly civilian objects.”
Although NATO had claimed that these sites were converted into military objectives by Gaddafi forces, which in some cases may have used civilian sites as weapons storage or military communications facilities, the report notes that “site investigations conducted by the Mission failed to reveal any traces of weapons, munitions, military or communications equipment, or secondary explosions, other than the remnants of the ordinance used in the destruction of the site.”
Another report, by the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya, established by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council last year, revealed that “all sides on the ground committed war crimes with no mention at all of a potential genocide conducted by the Qaddafi forces,” according to journalist Vijay Prashid.
The UN report also suggests a distinct lack of clarity regarding potential NATO war crimes.
According to Prashid, the UN report demonstrates that “the rush to a NATO ‘humanitarian intervention’ might have been made on exaggerated evidence, and that NATO’s own military intervention might have been less than ‘humanitarian’ in its effects.”
But while the international community calls for independent, impartial and thorough investigations into these allegations, it might be well served to take note of the fact that no comparable investigations have taken place related to another war launched on this date, nine years ago.
On March 19, 2003, the United States and its “coalition of the willing” began bombing Baghdad in an effort to depose its ruler, Saddam Hussein. The bombing began with a limited assault on government targets, and intensified over the next couple days
The violations of international law, however, began even before the initial shock and awe bombing campaign. To this date, no high-ranking officials have ever been held accountable for these actions.
If the human rights community ever expects a thorough accounting of NATO’s war crimes starting a year ago, it would behoove us all to remember the war crimes commenced eight years beforehand.
As early as January 2003 — three months before the U.S. actually launched its attack — the Pentagon was announcing its plans for the “shock and awe” bombing campaign.
“If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan,” CBS News reported on January 24, “one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch between 300 and 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. … [T]his is more than number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, the plan calls for launching another 300 to 400 cruise missiles.”
A Pentagon official warned: “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”
The intention of announcing these plans so early — before the UN weapons inspectors had finished their job and before diplomacy in the Security Council had been allowed to take its course — appeared to be a form of psychological warfare against the Iraqi people. If that was not the intent, it was certainly the effect.
A group of psychologists published a report in January 2003 describing the looming war’s effect on children’s mental health.
”With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed,” they found. ”Many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.”
Shock and Awe
“Shock and awe” began with limited bombing on March 19, 2003 as U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until March 21, 2003, when the main bombing campaign began. U.S.-led forces launched approximately 1,700 air sorties, with 504 using cruise missiles.
The attack was a violation of the UN Charter, which stipulates that “Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” The only exception to this is in the case of Security Council authorization, which the U.S. did not have.
Desperate to kill Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7. A single B-1B bomber dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs. The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.
Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.
Not Providing Security
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, the U.S. action in Iraq took on the character of an occupation, and as the occupying power, the U.S. was bound by international law to provide security. But in the post-war chaos, in which looting of Iraq’s national antiquities was rampant, U.S. forces stood by as Iraq’s national museum was looted and countless historical treasures were lost.
Despite the fact that U.S. officials were warned even before the invasion that Iraq’s national museum would be a “prime target for looters” by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), set up to supervise the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, U.S. forces took no action to secure the building. In protest of the U.S. failure to prevent the resulting looting of historical artefacts dating back 10,000 years, three White House cultural advisers resigned.
“It didn’t have to happen”, Martin Sullivan – who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years – told Reuters news agency. The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO called the loss and destruction “a disaster.”
During the course of the war, according to a four-month investigation by USA Today, the U.S. dropped 10,800 cluster bombs on Iraq. “The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”
U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster weapons into urban areas from late March to early April, killing dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The attacks left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets that continued to kill and injure civilians weeks after the fighting stopped.
Because of the indiscriminate effect of these duds that keep killing long after the cessation of hostilities, the use of cluster munitions is banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United States has refused to sign.
Possibly anticipating a long, drawn-out occupation and counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, in a March 2003 memorandum Bush administration lawyers devised legal doctrines justifying certain torture techniques, offering legal rationales “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.”
They argued that the president or anyone acting on the president’s orders are not bound by U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture, asserting that the need for “obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens” supersedes any obligations the administration has under domestic or international law.
“In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign,” the memo states, U.S. prohibitions against torture “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”
Over the course of the next year, disclosures emerged that torture had been used extensively in Iraq for “intelligence gathering.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed in The New Yorker in May 2004 that a 53-page classified Army report written by Gen. Antonio Taguba concluded that Abu Ghraib prison’s military police were urged on by intelligence officers seeking to break down the Iraqis before interrogation.
“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” wrote Taguba.
These actions, authorized at the highest levels, constituted serious breaches of international and domestic law, including the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute.
These are just a few of the more obvious examples U.S. violations of international law from the earliest days of the invasion of Iraq, for which no one has been held to account. Of course, sadly, the crimes against the Iraqi people continued and intensified over the years.
There was the 2004 assault on Fallujah in which white phosphorus – banned under international law – was used against civilians. There was the 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed civilians were systematically murdered by U.S. marines. There was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” massacre revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010.
While each of the above-mentioned crimes should be dealt with in its own way, it is important to remember the words of American jurist Robert Jackson, who led the prosecutions of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. In his opening statement before the international military tribunal on Nazi war crimes, Jackson denounced aggressive war as “the greatest menace of our time.”
Jackson noted that “to start an aggressive war has the moral qualities of the worst of crimes.” The tribunal, he said, had decided that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime: it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of whole.”
On this ninth anniversary of the unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, it is worth keeping those words in mind. It is never too late to bring prosecutions against that war’s chief architects, including Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and the chief war criminal George W. Bush.
And, of course, on the first anniversary of another legally questionable war – this time in Libya – we should apply those same standards to NATO leaders such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama.