Socialist Worker

Good and bad war criminals?

Issue No. 1679


Good and bad war criminals?

By Alex Callinicos

THE LABOUR government's failure to prosecute the Nazi war criminal Konrad Kalejs has rightly caused widespread anger. Jack Straw defended the decision, arguing that there was not enough evidence to meet the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial. Straw also said he had deported Kalejs because the evidence was insufficient to suggest that "on the balance of probabilities" he had committed the crimes of which he is accused.

But if that was so, why not, as campaigning lawyer Michael Mansfield asked in the Independent on Sunday, hold Kalejs while further investigations were made? But behind this scandal lies a deeper one. Why have Kalejs and his ilk been able to evade justice for more than 50 years? Why, moreover, were they able to settle in English speaking liberal democracies like Britain and Australia that constantly proclaim their commitment to human rights?

Many members of the Nazi military and secret police made themselves useful to the Allied conquerors after the Second World War. They were reliably anti-Communist, and so could be used against the West's new Russian rival and its occupation zone in Eastern Europe. Often the Nazis could offer Britain and the US valuable experience in fighting the Soviet Union. Thus the West German secret service was founded by General Reinhard Gehlen, a general staff officer under Hitler.

After the Second World War the US took him on to continue running the spy networks he had created in Russia and Eastern Europe for Hitler. Many Nazis were allowed to flee Europe and begin new lives elsewhere in reward for their services.

In addition, "displaced persons" from the Ukraine and the Baltic were welcomed and resettled as victims of Soviet tyranny when many had served in Hitler's armies-in some cases, such as Kalejs, perpetrating barbarous atrocities. Now, over 50 years later, a few wizened survivors are being dug up and called to account for their crimes (when, of course, Jack Straw does not spring to their rescue).

They are the fossils of a terrible history-not merely that of the Holocaust itself, but of the Western democracies' willingness to protect Nazi war criminals from justice. No one should delude themselves into thinking that this is an old story only now coming to light. The West will still protect and support mass murderers whenever it suits its purposes.

The Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 perpetrated some of the most terrible crimes in modern history. Perhaps two million people died as a result of the attempt of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot's leadership to create an isolated, ultra- Stalinist society in the poorest country in Asia.

Pol Pot is now dead but one of his commanders, Ta Mok, is due to stand trial next month. He is threatening to blow the gaff on the Western governments that supported the Khmer Rouge during the 1980s. According to last Sunday's Observer, "Ta Mok's lawyer, Benson Samay, said the court would hear details of how, between 1985 and 1989, the Special Air Service (SAS) ran a series of camps for Khmer Rouge allies in Thailand close to the Cambodian border and created a 'sabotage battalion' of 250 experts."

And why did Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister of the day, along with US president Ronald Reagan, support mass murderers who were Communists to boot? The answer is simple. The Khmer Rouge was on the right side in the Cold War. In 1978-9 Pol Pot's regime was ended by a Vietnamese invasion. Vietnam was Moscow's closest ally in Asia.

So China-then allied to Washington in the Cold War-invaded Vietnam, only to be defeated itself. This was followed by a guerrilla war in Cambodia in which the US, China, and Britain backed the Khmer Rouge against the regime that the Vietnamese had put in place in Phnom Penh. Thatcher-in a rapidly suppressed interview on Blue Peter, of all things-went so far as to try to distinguish between good and bad Khmer Rouge. The West's concern to punish war crimes is highly selective.

Slobodan Milosevic was not indicted as a war criminal during or immediately after the Bosnian war, when Washington regarded him as a stabilising force in the Balkans, but only during NATO's war with Serbia. Mass murderers only become war criminals when they cease to be useful.

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Thu 13 Jan 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1679
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