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‘War crimes’ flow from the logic of imperialist attacks

The definition of a war crime, how it is investigated and the fate of those deemed responsible are shaped by power relations in society, says Sam Ord
Issue 2800
US president Joe Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron and British prime minister Boris Johnson

US president Joe Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson think they decide what war crimes are

After the evidence of ­massacres by Russian forces in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, US president Joe Biden again labelled Russian president Vladimir Putin “a war criminal”. Boris Johnson said the massacres were “yet more evidence” of war crimes and called for “a war crimes trial”. Foreign secretary Liz Truss said the British-led effort to launch the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes in Ukraine was “the largest state referral in its history”. In fact Biden wasn’t always so sure.

On 16 March reporters asked him if Putin was a war criminal. Biden replied, “No.” But then, having walked off, Biden asked the reporter to repeat the question. “I think he is a war criminal,” he said. The incident, and the way in which the decision was made, underline how imperialist powers use ­accusations of war crimes.  A war crime is more than a horrific act of slaughter during a war. That happens in virtually every conflict.

The historical basis, as used in the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi ­leaders after the Second World War is of instigating a war of aggression and “a crime against peace.” Immediately Biden’s hypocrisy is clear. Weren’t the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the Nato assault on Libya examples of wars of aggression? Western imperialists might claim they were taking action to disarm hostile states—but then so would Putin. 

All imperialist wars, based on employing the most modern technology of death against weaker enemies, involve barbaric methods that smash existing societies. They can create an impact that lasts for decades. From the beginning of modern imperialism in the 19th century, war crimes were inevitable. Often colonial powers hardly ­bothered to cloak their motives in humanitarian rhetoric. It was just the racist language of stronger civilisations against less important ones.

The nature of international courts charged with investigating war crimes was sharply outlined during the trial of the former president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic headed up a section of the Serbian ruling class rule who used virulent nationalism to divert ­workers’ anger against the regime. He led a racist campaign against the Kosovo Albanians and his forces in the 1990s carried out terrible murders. But Nato forces also played a brutal role, bombing the region in 1999 for 78 days. Nato’s bombardment killed up to 528 civilians according to Human Rights Watch yet no one behind this campaign was tried.

Instead Milosevic faced 66 counts of crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes at the Hague tribunal. The US doesn’t acknowledge the International Criminal Court in case it indicts its own forces. Western leaders’ allegations of Putin’s war crimes are designed as part of a larger project to build support for an escalated war against one of their biggest imperialist rivals. If Putin is a war criminal then so are former prime ministers and presidents such as Tony Blair, George Bush, Barack Obama and others. An investigation in Ukraine should also extend to the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The destruction of Mariupol should be seen alongside the wrecking of Fallujah.


A history of the rules of war shows who chooses the guilty 

Imperialists and colonisers set the modern rules of war to defend their interests. They came as a response to the industrialisation of war and its spread across whole continents and the globe. The historic scale of slaughter demanded some response, and the imperialists’ answer was rules they could police.

The Hague Conventions were international treaties negotiated in 1899 and 1907, coupled with the Geneva Conventions from 1864 to 1949 that claimed to set the limits of war. The Leipzig trials after the First World War created an international definition of a war crime that has been constantly adapted. In 1921 the code was put into practice and a small number of German soldiers and military leaders were tried.

This concept was further adapted after the Second World War. The London Charter set the basis for which Axis powers would be tried. A consequence of allowing the victors to define war crimes and crimes against humanity is that they swerve from incriminating themselves. Nazi leaders were rightly tried. But those who dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, killing thousands of civilians, were not. The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, was created in 2002. It has adapted the past conventions and protocols to identify 23 points that breach the Geneva Convention.

These include torture, taking hostages, using child soldiers, settling in occupied territory and using poisonous weapons among others. It’s therefore hardly a surprise that Israel has criticised the court. Not one of the 46 people who have been indicted by the ICC is Western. So what is the way forward? In St Petersburg, Russia, in 1905 unarmed demonstrators were shot and killed by Tsar Nicholas’ Imperial Guard. The people of Russia didn’t wait for international courts to try Tsar Nicholas. They built massive strikes and protests which led eventually to the Russian Revolution of 1917.


Who decides on a genocide?

British prime minister, Boris Johnson said the events in Ukraine don’t “look far short of genocide to me.” But how do you define genocide—the worst crime against humanity? The term was first used by Jewish-Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin in 1943. It was at a time when the Nazis were systematically killing Jews, Roma and Sinti people, and disabled people. The United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention defined genocide in 1948 as “Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

It clearly applied to the Holocaust, and to the mass murder in Rwanda in 1994 and the genocide of Armenians during the First World War. But when the term is used often depends on whether imperialist powers want to take military action. The US, for example, deliberately crushed any mention of the word genocide about events in Rwanda in 1993-4. It made a successful effort to remove most of the UN “peacekeepers” who were already in Rwanda.

It blocked the subsequent authorisation of UN reinforcements. The US didn’t want to act, so it shunned mention of a genocide. The US and Britain are themselves complicit in crimes that don’t “look far short of genocide”. The US is built upon the murder of indigenous groups. By 1900 some indigenous populations were reduced by as much as 98 percent to make way for European settlers. The atrocities of the British Empire devastated some ethnic groups too. For instance, the British Empire forcibly starved up to 29 million Indians make possible the exports of food. 

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