Ali Muyaid Salaheddin, 8, and his sister, Shahad, 14, rest at their home after being injured by bombing in Baghdad last year. Millions of Iraqis have been killed, injured, or sickened thanks to the U.S. war and sanctions regime waged against them over more than twenty years. (Photo: AP)
Samantha Powers, US Ambassador to the UN was in Rwanda last month marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. Ms. Powers book, The Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, won the Pulitzer-prize in 2003. I’m trying to imagine how many years it will take before we see a UN Ambassador or anyone really, in Baghdad, apologizing for the devastation in Iraq. Some call that a genocide as well.
In explaining why it was so important to be in Kigali, Ms. Powers replied that “it matters intrinsically… it matters to those people… that we’re still with them because that’s the first taunt of the perpetrator: people will forget, they’ll never believe you…”
This, of course, is what happened to Iraq: people have forgotten. And even worse perhaps, people—especially people in power and in the corporate media—never wanted to know and ignored the extent of the devastation in the first place.
The UN imposed very stringent economic sanctions against Iraq when it invaded Kuwait in 1990. Sanctions were promoted as an alternative to war, a more acceptable, first-step strategy to convince Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops. They didn’t “work” in Washington’s estimation and the diplomatic strategy was flawed at best. So, it was on to war—the first Gulf War, January 16 – March 3, 1991. The massive bombing campaign of that war destroyed the country, with “near apocalyptic results upon the economic mechanized society,” wrote Martti Ahtisaari UN Under-Secretary-Generalafter visiting Iraq some weeks later. “Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabliities of post-industrial dependency.”
UN Sanctions remained in place for the most part, at the insistence of the United States, until June 2013, even though their original goal had been accomplished some thirteen years earlier. This despite years of evidence, including studies by the UN’s own agencies, documenting their devastating impact on the country and people. Some accuse the US of genocide in Iraq. Francis Boyle, a leading American expert in international law and professor at the University of Illinois in Champaign, is one of these.
In September 1991, Prof. Boyle filed a legal complaint on behalf of Iraq’s 4.5 million children. He submitted the petition to the UN Secretary General and to a number of UN agencies including UNICEF. “This Indictment, Complaint and Petition for Relief from Genocide accuses the Respondents (President George Bush Sr. and the United States of America) of committing the international crime of genocide against the 4.5 million Children of Iraq in violation of the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 and in violation of the municipal legal systems of all civilized nations in the world…” He cited existing evidence for his claim including the report of the Harvard Study Team which estimated that “at least 170,000 Iraqi children under the age of five will die within the next year… if the imposition of sanctions continues.” The petition was never acted upon.
Boyle mounted another campaign before the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq, using his original genocide petition. This time he contacted senior Iraqi government officials, asking them to grant him the legal authority to file lawsuits against the US and UK governments in the World Court. He felt the case for genocide was even stronger in 2003, based of comments made by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a 1996 TV interview on 60 Minutes. When asked if the reported deaths of a half million Iraqi children was “worth it” in terms of US policy in Iraq, Albright answered, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”
This statement, according to Boyle,
Is what criminal lawyers call a classic ‘Admission Against Interest.’ This Statement by the then sitting U.S. Secretary of State, acting within the scope of her official duties and speaking in the name of the United States government, could be taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and filed to prove that the United States of America possessed the required mens rea (criminal intent) necessary to commit the international crime of genocide. Under both international law and U.S. domestic law, to be guilty of a crime a person or a state must possess the requisite mens rea at the same time that he or she or it commits the criminal act (actus reus).
Iraqi government officials also declined to involve themselves in his case. Prof. Boyle called these failures “one of the great disappointments of my life.” As he added it up, more than 3.3 million Iraqi men, women and children died as a result of US/UK actions between 1991 and 2011 when the US officially ended hostilities with Iraq: 200,000 killed in the first Gulf War; 1.7 million dead as a result of sanctions; and 1.4 million dead as a result of the illegal invasion of 2003.
In March 1998, two years after Albright’s infamous “admission against interest”, President Bill Clinton was in Rwanda where he apologized — not only for the US, but for international inaction in the face of the mass killings. As many as one million people are said to have died. “We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.” he said. Why wasn’t the “rightful” name applied? Because when the term is applied, action is mandated according to Article 1: The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish. (emphasis added)
This is one reason why there is so much resistance, so much posturing, hedging and hesitation about invoking a legal determination for genocide, not only in Iraq, but in other countries too numerous to list: Viet Nam, East Timor, Congo, Palestine…to name a few. Because if “the parties” to the UN convention label it a genocide, action must be taken. We can call it a genocide after- the- fact, in 1998 or in 2014. We can express our remorse, our regret and own our mistakes in Rwanda because we’re off the hook. The UN Security Council, and the government of Rwanda took action as required by the Convention, establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in November 1994 (UN) and instituting the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission as well as a modern-day version of a traditional approach to reconciliation, gacaca(Gov’t of Rwanda)
However, the US and the international community are not off the hook in Iraq and other countries where genocide is alleged. The legal structures and mechanisms are there to prosecute the crimes and in the case of Iraq, Prof. Boyle has offered to help update his case and make it available free of cost. But the political will to pursue the cases is not there. Rather, government and UN officials, including Ms. Powers, use Rwanda to argue for military intervention to prevent genocide, promoting war as necessary humanitarian intervention.
Looking at the humanitarian catastrophes created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both launched to “help” or “save”—pick one: women, children, people living under a cruel dictator—one wonders how anyone can support these ideas.
The sad truth is Ms. Powers was right when she said: “People will forget and they’ll never believe you.” Aided by what Media Lens calls “Journalism of Amnesia,” people have already forgotten about Iraq and Afghanistan is quickly fading from our memories. And so, the pressure for military intervention continues to be applied, especially in the case of Syria.
In 1948, a world weary of war declared ‘Never again’ and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in one 24-hour period. We are also weary of war in 2014, dismayed and angered by the never-ending-wars perpetrated by the U.S. government.
It’s time, it’s way past time, to return our country and the international community to the rule of laws, putting down our weapons and putting aside these flawed notions. There are, according to Prof. Boyle, “more than enough international laws and international organizations to deal with major human rights atrocities and catastrophes going on around the world today without any need to recognize or condone the bogus and dangerous doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention.'”
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