Crimea, Iraq and international law: A little perspective
The war of words between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin has continued this week, with Obama forcefully rejecting an argument from Putin that the referendum for Crimean secession from Ukraine to become part of Russia, was “fully consistent with the norms of international law and the UN Charter.”
In a statement, the White House said that the Crimean referendum “violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention.” Obama further emphasized that “that Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Vice President Joe Biden weighed in on Tuesday, saying that Russia’s treaty to annex Crimea was a “blatant violation of international law” and that Russian forces had carried out a “brazen military incursion” that “ratcheted up ethnic tensions.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “nothing more than a land grab,” Biden said.
For those looking for evidence of how the United States routinely twists international law and concepts of sovereignty depending on its geopolitical needs and whims at a given moment, the diplomatic spat over Crimea could hardly be better timed. Today, of course, is the 11th anniversary of the unprovoked, illegal war of aggression carried out by the United States against the sovereign nation of Iraq.
Joe Biden was instrumental in building up congressional support for that ill-fated war. As then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he oversaw hearings which systematically excluded individuals who were critical of claims regarding Iraq’s alleged possessions of weapons of mass destruction, including former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter.
When Biden voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, he falsely claimed on the Senate floor, “[Saddam Hussein] possesses chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear weapons.”
With congressional authorization in hand, on March 19, 2003 (already the 20th in Iraq), President George W. Bush launched a bombing campaign of Baghdad followed by an all-out military assault which ultimately led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 5,000 U.S. soldiers. Another 100,000 Americans have been wounded.
As staggering as those numbers may be, they don’t fully convey the magnitude of the crime which was committed by launching this war 11 years ago. The impact on international norms was equally profound, and continue to reverberate today. Russian President Putin himself cited the Iraq invasion in his address to parliament on March 18.
“Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun,” he said.
They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.
This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.
Regardless of what one might think of Putin’s policies — whether his domestic human rights record or his actions in Ukraine — the factual basis of his critique of U.S. foreign policy cannot be denied. While pundits and scholars may quibble over the lawfulness of theYugoslavia war, the Afghanistan invasion, or the bombing of Libya, what should be beyond dispute at this point is that the attack on Iraq was unequivocally criminal.
The violations of international law, which began even before the initial shock and awe bombing campaign, continued and intensified throughout the invasion, and the subsequent occupation and counterinsurgency campaign. To this date, no high-ranking officials have ever been held accountable for these actions.
Threats of Force
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 the 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.”
The explicit threats being made against Iraq in early 2003 were arguably a violation of the UN Charter, which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
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 Saddam 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.
The deliberate attack on a civilian target was in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s protection of non-combatants, which states:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.
Failure to Provide 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 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.
Supporting Death Squads
As part of its counterinsurgency campaign, the United States also played a key role in training and overseeing U.S.-funded special police commandos who ran a network of torture centers in Iraq and engaged in a brutal sectarian civil war.
A 15-month investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic revealed how retired U.S. colonel James Steele, a veteran of American dirty wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and another special forces veteran, Colonel James Coffman, worked with Steele and reported directly to General David Petraeus, who had been sent into Iraq to organize the Iraqi security services.
As the Guardian reported last year:
The Pentagon sent a US veteran of the “dirty wars” in Central America to oversee sectarian police commando units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centres to get information from insurgents. These units conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation and accelerated the country’s descent into full-scale civil war. …
The allegations, made by US and Iraqi witnesses in the Guardian/BBC documentary, implicate US advisers for the first time in the human rights abuses committed by the commandos. It is also the first time that Petraeus – who last November was forced to resign as director of the CIA after a sex scandal – has been linked through an adviser to this abuse.
(The full hour-long documentary can be seen here.)
While there had long been allegations that the U.S. was involved in fueling the sectarian violence as a way to curtail the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation through classic divide-and-conquer techniques, the Guardian investigation is the first conclusive evidence that the U.S. was in fact involved in supporting the violence. At its height, the sectarian civil war between Shia and Sunni was claiming 3,000 victims a month.
These are just a few of the more blatant 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. There are of course, many others that we know about and others that we don’t.
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.
While each of the above-mentioned crimes should be dealt with individually, it is important to remember the words of American prosecutor 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.”
When it comes to Iraq, the accumulated evil of the whole is difficult to fully comprehend. Even now, 11 years after the initial U.S. invasion, the country is reeling from daily suicide bombings and sectarian violence, and an ongoing refugee crisis. According to Refugees International, Iraqi internally displaced persons number roughly 2.8 million.
“Internally displaced Iraqis are extremely vulnerable and live in constant fear, with limited access to shelter, food, and basic services,” notes the NGO.
As Al Jazeera reporter Dahr Jamail, who was one of the few unembedded journalists to report extensively from Iraq during the 2003 Iraq invasion, describes it, the reality in Iraq is “utter devastation.” He said on Democracy Now after returning from a trip to Iraq last year:
It’s a situation where, overall, we can say that Iraq is a failed state. The economy is in a state of crisis, perpetual crisis, that began far back with the institution of the 100 Bremer orders during—under the Coalition Provisional Authority, the civil government set up to run Iraq during the first year of the occupation. And it’s been in crisis ever since.
The average Iraqi is just barely getting by. And how can they get by when there’s virtually no security across much large swaths of country to this day, where, you know, as we see in the headlines recently, even when there’s not these dramatic, spectacular days of dozens of people being killed by bombs across Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, on any given day there’s assassinations, there’s detentions, there’s abductions and people being disappeared and kidnapped?
There is also the tragic legacy of cancer and birth defects caused by the U.S. military’s extensive use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus in Iraq. Noting the birth defects in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, Jamail says:
They’re extremely hard to bear witness to. But it’s something that we all need to pay attention to … What this has generated is, from 2004 up to this day, we are seeing a rate of congenital malformations in the city of Fallujah that has surpassed even that in the wake of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that nuclear bombs were dropped on at the end of World War II.
Still pressing for justice 11 years after the launching of this criminal war, several organizations, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, and the Center for Consitutional Rights, have launched the “right to heal” campaign.
The network of Iraqis and U.S. military veterans came together last year to hold the U.S. government accountable for the lasting effects of war and the rights of veterans and civilians to heal.
“The Iraq war is not over for Iraqi civilians and U.S. veterans who continue to struggle with various forms of trauma and injury,” says the Right to Heal website, “for Iraqis and veterans who suffer the effects of environmental poisoning due to certain U.S. munitions and burn pits of hazardous material; and for a growing generation of orphans and people displaced by war.”
The groups are working to highlight the lack of accountability for the ongoing human rights violations of Iraqis, Afghans, and U.S. military veterans, and on March 26 are holding a People’s Hearing on the Lasting Impact of the Iraq War.
Moderated by Phil Donahue, former host of The Phil Donahue Show and Co-Director of the film Body of War, the People’s Hearing will include Iraqi civil society leaders and U.S. military veterans who will testify to the lasting impact of the war and make the case that the U.S. government must be held to account for the serious damage it has caused.
Another effort for accountability is playing out in the courts.
On March 18, the Center for Constitutional Rights urged a federal appeals court to re-open a case brought by four Iraqi Abu Ghraib torture victims against private military contractor CACI Premier Technology, Inc. The men were subjected to sexual violence, electric shocks, forced nudity, broken bones, and deprivation of oxygen, food, and water.
U.S. military investigators concluded that several CACI interrogators directed U.S. soldiers to commit “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” of Abu Ghraib detainees in order to “soften” them up for interrogations, but a district court judge dismissed the case against CACI in June by narrowly interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Shell/Royal Dutch Petroleum to foreclose Alien Tort Statute (ATS) claims arising in Iraq.
Said Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy, “U.S. courts must at last provide a remedy for the victims of torture at Abu Ghraib. CACI indisputably played a key role in those atrocities, and it is time for them to be held accountable. The lower court’s ruling creates lawless spaces where corporations can commit torture and war crimes and then find safe haven in the United States. That’s a ruling that should not stand.”