Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was found dead in his jail cell at The Hague Saturday. Since 2001, he had been on trial for genocide in Bosnia, and war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Although many have already adjudged him guilty, we will never hear the official verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
We will also never see a trial in the ICTY for Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright or Wesley Clark for the 1999 US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Nor will George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld be prosecuted by an international tribunal for their war crimes in Iraq.
NATO’s invasion of Yugoslavia was a war of aggression that violated the United Nations Charter. It was not undertaken in self-defense nor did it carry the approval of the Security Council. Between 1500 and 2000 civilians were killed and many thousands injured. When I visited Belgrade a year after the NATO bombing, I saw schools, hospitals, bridges, libraries and homes reduced to rubble. The ICTY statute prohibits the targeting of civilians. And even though it also forbids the use of poisonous weapons calculated to cause unnecessary suffering, NATO used depleted uranium and cluster bombs, whose devastating character is widely known. NATO also targeted a petrochemical complex, releasing carcinogens into the air that reached 10,600 times the acceptable safety level.
The American Association of Jurists and a group of Canadian lawyers and law professors filed a war crimes complaint against NATO leaders in the ICTY. Yet that tribunal conducted only a perfunctory investigation of the serious charges. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the ICTY for failing to thoroughly investigate.
By denouncing the International Criminal Court, Team Bush has ensured that US leaders will never be held to account for war crimes. Although virtually every Western democracy has ratified the statute under which the Court operates, the United States has thumbed its nose at this monumental international justice system.
Bush has reason to fear prosecution. He has used cluster bombs, depleted uranium, white phosphorous and napalm. And the torture of prisoners in US custody also constitutes a war crime. His war on Iraq is a war of aggression.
After the Holocaust, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg called the waging of aggressive war “essentially an evil thing … 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 the whole.” Associate United States Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Tribunal, labeled the crime of aggression “the greatest menace of our times.”
For the first time, at Nuremberg, individuals were held criminally accountable for war crimes and waging a war of aggression. Japanese leaders were also tried for atrocities committed during World War II, in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.
Yet US leaders who were responsible for some of the most heinous war crimes ever committed – the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fire bombings of Dresden, Tokyo and 66 other Japanese cities – were never brought to justice.
Only the vanquished Germans and Japanese were put on trial. Justice Radhabinod Pal of India, dissenting at the Tokyo Tribunal, called this “victor’s justice.”
Indeed, Robert McNamara, who participated in the bombing of Japan during World War II, admitted in the film Fog of War that he and General Curtis LeMay would have been tried for war crimes if the US had lost the war. He said, “LeMay said if we lost the war that we would have all been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He … and I’d say I … were behaving as war criminals.”
It is no accident that the Iraqi Special Tribunal where Saddam Hussein is currently on trial only has jurisdiction over Iraqi citizens for acts committed prior to May 1, 2003, the day the US-UK occupation of Iraq began. The United States opposed sending Hussein to an international tribunal, and manipulated the Iraqi tribunal to prevent any US leaders from being tried for their war crimes in Iraq.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. But the leaders of the world’s most powerful country continue to enjoy “victor’s justice.”