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Prosecuting War Crimes? Be Sure to Read the Fine Print

Posted on Aug 28, 2011
AP / Hussein Malla

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, left, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2008. Both leaders have ordered brutal attacks against their own rebellious citizens.

By Robert Fisk

This article was originally published by The Independent.

It's good to see bad guys behind bars.

Especially if they're convicted. Justice is better than revenge. And justice must be done for the relatives of the victims as well as for the dead. Part two of the Mubarak trial this month was a case in point. Egyptians want to know exactly who ordered the killing of innocent demonstrators. Who was to blame? And since the buck stops—or is meant to stop—at the president's desk, how can Mubarak ultimately escape his just deserts? The same will apply to Gaddafi when—if?—we get him.

Ben Ali? Well, he'll stay, presumably, in his Saudi exile—which is anyway as near as you can get to a death sentence—since his in-absentia trials in Tunis were travesties of justice. Bashar al-Assad? We shall see if we need him or not. Gadhafi? Probably better dead than sent to trial, because he would probably do a Milosevic, mock the court and die in custody. Please note that no tribunals have called for the princes and emirs of the Gulf, or the Plucky Little King of Jordan, or the weird President Bouteflika of Algeria and his henchmen, or the much creepier president of Iran, to be put on trial.

When we decided to keep Hirohito on his Japanese throne, we winnowed down the number of Japanese war criminals to be hanged. Oddly, it was Churchill who wanted the worst of the Nazis to be executed on the spot; it was Stalin who wanted a trial. But then again, Stalin wasn't going to be accused of the mass murder of millions of Soviet citizens, was he?

It all depends, I think, on whether criminals are our friends (Stalin at the time) or our enemies (Hitler and his fellow Nazis), whether they have their future uses (the Japanese emperor) or whether we'll get their wealth more easily if they are out of the way (Saddam and Gadhafi). The last two were or are wanted for killing "their own people"—in itself a strange expression since it suggests that killing people other than Iraqis or Libyans might not be so bad. In other words, civil war killers are just as likely to end up on the hangman's noose.


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Or are they? In Lebanon, for example, things aren't that simple. While America would like to know who planned the bombing of its Beirut marine base in 1983, killing 241 U.S. servicemen, it has no war crime trials planned. Nor do the Lebanese. In fact, two amnesties for killers of the 1975-90 civil war specifically exempt all murderers from trial except those who killed religious or political leaders. An interesting distinction.

If your mum and dad were butchered by a crazed neighbour who happened to be of a different religion, the murderer will not go to court. If, however, he knocked off the local priest or imam, he has no immunity. Lebanon's 1991 amnesty, for example—Article 3 for those who like to peek into legal inanities—stipulates that amnesties do not apply to those who commit "the assassination or attempted murder of religious dignitaries, political leaders, Arab and foreign diplomats". Lebanese law, in other words, bestows more value on the life of a bigwig than a prole.

As the Lebanese jurist Nizar Saghiyé puts it: "We have to forget collective massacres, crimes against humanity, ordinary victims—only the murder of a leader is supposed to be punished." When a Lebanese parliamentarian pointed out that this denied the constitution's insistence on equality before the law, the Lebanese president declared that a politician was a "national symbol". This also means that political leaders who have ordered torture and mass murder—of course, I meet them socially in Beirut today—are safe from prosecution. The killers of up to 150,000 Lebanese are also safe, unless they tried to knock off a bishop or a sayed or a warlord.

Just why civil wars are so cruel—and thus, surely, deserving of even more condign punishment—remains a legal mystery. In his preface to Aïda Kanafani-Zahar's splendid analysis, Liban: La guerre et la mémoire (Lebanon: War and Remembrance), Antoine Garapon suggests that because love is the opposite of hate, the most fraternal of communities can become the most murderous: "The cheerful neighbourliness between the (religious) communities—which is the glory of Lebanon—becomes its hell." Thus the Lebanese civil war was "a crime of passion", he says. Kanafani-Zahar draws attention to the fact that the murder of Christian Maronite president-elect Bashir Gemayel in 1982 was followed only a few hours later by the massacre of up to 1,700 Sabra and Chatila camp Palestinians by Israel's Phalangist allies (Gemayel being their now dead leader); yet only Gemayel's assassination was referred to the Lebanese "Council of Justice".

In Bosnia, criminals continue to be sought, although the war had much in common with the Lebanese conflict. Lebanese Christians usually supported the Croats (the Phalangists sent them weapons) while Arab Muslims naturally sympathised with the Bosnian Muslims. In Lebanon, however, there were official village "reconciliations", attended by Muslim and Christian prelates and political leaders. Not so in Bosnia.

But justice? As long as the killers are alive—however old they are, however long ago their crimes were committed—justice would seem to be served by punishment. John Demjanjuk's trial in Germany this year is a case in point. Reconciliations and amnesties are a postponement of justice in the hope that the victims' relatives will die off and their descendants will lose all interest in the outrages of the past. Unlikely. Who now remembers the Armenians, Hitler asked? Millions of people, is my reply.

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BR549's avatar

By BR549, May 20, 2012 at 11:07 pm Link to this comment

drbhelthi, August 31, 2011 at 11:27 pm Link to this comment
“The 2,000 NAZI & family members whom the NAZI leadership in the US and Germany ferreted into the US via Operation Paper Clip and follow-ons, .....”

I had heard that the larger figure was supposed to have been about 30,000. “Paper Clip” was but one of those operations.  The 2,000 figure might have been so that Americans wouldn’t get all in a tizzy and question what Washington was up to. Of course, now we know.

German scientist, Erich Traub, for instance,  had a specialty for using mosquitos and ticks as disease vectors, so it was of no surprise to learn that the government put him up on Plum Island just north of Montauk, NY. To the immediate north of the facility we had Lyme Disease in Old Lyme CT, and to the immediate east was Block Island RI, where Babesiosis was first noticed. In 1950, the Navy was caught releasing the bacterium Serratia marcescens (see:

Your tax dollars hard at work. Imagine where this planet would be today if our cesspool cerebrals in Washington were actually capable of believing in something higher than themselves.

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By Matt Spencer, May 20, 2012 at 8:19 pm Link to this comment

This is a very thought provoking article. Of course, the “fine print” in the title is just a metaphorical form of speech, but it does make one realize that war criminals are usually not given a standard treatment but instead on a case by case basis.

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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, September 1, 2011 at 12:27 am Link to this comment

„To even mention > John Demjanjuk´s trial in Germany this year is a case in point < is absolute nonsense even ridiculous, when one is talking about Prosecuting War Crimes.”  Observer

How very accurate.
The 2,000 NAZI & family members whom the NAZI leadership in the US and Germany ferreted into the US via Operation Paper Clip and follow-ons,
obviously have relatives in the Office of the Attorney General in Munich. Whom did this sadistic, Hollywood-type, show appease?  Only the misguidedly ignorant among the German/European public, and the sadistic-types who conducted the production. The intent of the sadistic shills, rather than justice, was served.
Same old same old.

Pick out a private or corporal-type to scapegoat before the world, such as Bradley Manning, instead of the criminal officer-types who do the scheming. The elected-appointed officials continue to enjoy the power and benefits provided by the state, live like quasi-royalty, and condescend when speaking to the electorate. 

Similarly, the CIA/Zionist propaganda about Libya and Gadhafi that western-world news media are broadcasting, while NATO puppetry continue to carry out the directive of the George H.W. Bush Sr. entourage, under the guise of “democracy and freedom for women”. Power and oil control.

As a continuation in Europe, the NAZI/Zionists want Germany/EURO to create the same type of worthless bonds that they used to bankrupt the USA in 2008. Hello, German partiots who tried to squelch Hitler- - !

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By blogdog, August 30, 2011 at 4:31 pm Link to this comment

“small potatoes: agreed

Shrub, as the irrepressible Molly Ivans (bless her soul) called him, was the near-perfect
(Obomber the perfect) puppet POTUS

on 9/11 the rogue network, in service to the Invisible Gov., security stripped him, hung
him out as a visible target, put him on AFO with no destination, then called in the threat:
ANGLE IS NEXT - finally arriving at Offut AFB to secure the nuclear triggers, they then got
him on the phone, white as a ghost, and gave him his orders

10 years later the endless global war of terror is now well under way, and the perfect
puppet POTUS carries on (under Left Cover to quell the anti-war progressives), as states
are being systematically failed and brought under IMF/NATO hegemony

the oligarchs are getting their way - anyone in their path is dispensable - in truth they’re
all war criminals

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By Observer, August 30, 2011 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This sentence says it all > It all depends on whether criminals are our (so-called) friends.
To even mention > John Demjanjuk’s trial in Germany this year is a case in point < is absolute nonsense,even ridicules,when one is talking about Prosecuting War Crimes.
It should have read ” Case in Point is Israel ” !
If History will ever tell something about Justice done,than certainly Israel got away with Murder- literally.If one is looking at the last 100 years of what was done by ” Zionist Jewry “,it is appalling that they are conveniently being left out,as usually.
Prosecuting War Crimes is a noble cause indeed,
however,not until we see a case and the consequently Trial against Israel and the entire Bush/Cheney/Wolfowitz/Rumsfeld-CrimeGang with their planned and orchestrated War in Iraq.

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By Jim Yell, August 30, 2011 at 1:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Of course the fundamentalist Christians, just as a large part of Islam believe they may kill anyone in their way to domination as ordained by God. For those of us that don’t find comfort in certitude, we can only say, how does our country, a country that has killed thousands for the benifit of Corporational profits, how can our country point fingers when Cheney, Bush, Bush, Rumsfield and so many others have not even been called on to explain their actions.

Why do we still not know what Cheney and the Energy Corporations dealt with behind closed doors so long ago. Bradley Manning is tortured for less reason than any one of these monsters, Bush, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and so on should be.

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By drbhelthi, August 30, 2011 at 12:48 pm Link to this comment

How is George W. Bush avoiding world war crimes prosecution for the things he’s done?  anaman51

Former CIA agents indicate that G.H.W.BushJunior is small potatoes in comparison to G.H.W.BushSenior. goto

In his “Chronicles,” Chip Tatum provides the insider story on GHWBushSr,
which places Bush in the category of a dictator who hides behind his
front men:

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BR549's avatar

By BR549, August 30, 2011 at 10:12 am Link to this comment

Drakula, August 30 at 2:15 am

In accordance with that, their assets (actually, OUR assets) should all be seized back from them. They acquired their wealth solely on the backs of hard working people who were playing by a different, more socially accepted rule book and to them, life is great as long as people continue to trust in the lies they continue to spew.

Personally, I think it only fitting for Cheney and Rumsfeld to each have a stroke and become vegetables while the patriots put them into an asylum. The prison of their own mind and knowing that they were totally powerless and penniless would be justice enough. No one would hear their silent screams.

Underneath his brilliant white robe, St. Peter wears a huge-ass pair of combat boots, worn specifically to use on assholes like Cheney and Rumsfeld and the others you listed). Unfortunately, the list is not a short one.

There is a quote that addresses this class of sociopaths that so aptly fits here; I’ll revive it as best I can. “May you live to see the horror of your own actions,” something like that. Someone correct me.

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By Drakula, August 30, 2011 at 2:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

George Bush, Dick Cheney, Rumsfield, Toney Blair,the house of Saud, Netanyahu etc.etc. should spend the rest of their lives in stocks, in a public place to face their victims.

Killing them is too kind!

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By BR549, August 29, 2011 at 6:45 pm Link to this comment

“It’s good to see bad guys behind bars.”
Great statement, Bob. I guess if the topic is War Crimes, we can expect to see a lot of vacancies in Congress in 2012.

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By Sylvain Duford, August 29, 2011 at 3:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What about prosecuting most of the American Administrations of the last 100
years for crimes against humanity?

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By ocjim, August 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm Link to this comment

So what about America’s war criminals in the Bush administration: Cheney, Bush, Rumsfield, etc.?

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By anaman51, August 29, 2011 at 1:49 pm Link to this comment

After WWII, our government wasted no time in quietly absorbing any number of murderers, espionage agents, professional liars, and even the entire Japanese study on biological and chemical warfare that was carried out in China, and tested on the Chinese people. We managed to overlook these moral shortcomings with what was described at the time as being in the best interests of the United States.

Our government has made a history of shaking hands with some of the most reprehensible human beings to have survived their own wars, and these acts were made secret at the time so that many of them are just now being publicly uncovered. Our government has made many deals with many devils over the course of our nation’s history, and I find it sickening. Makes me wonder how one qualifies as an enemy of the United States.

What sorts of evil horror does one have to perpetrate in order to qualify for prosecution for war crimes?  What kind of special dirt can they offer us to get off the hook, despite what they’ve done? How is George W. Bush avoiding world war crimes prosecution for the things he’s done?

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blogdog's avatar

By blogdog, August 29, 2011 at 11:26 am Link to this comment

History tells us that the victors finger the ‘war criminals’ - and, NATO is
desperate to declare victory in Libya (especially before the UN mandate expires
in Sept.) - so desperate, in fact, that virtually nothing they allow to be reported
to the MSM is true… but occasionally something slips through the cracks:


“Meanwhile the rebel administration, the National Transitional Council (NTC),
said half of its leaders had moved from the eastern city of Benghazi to Tripoli.

Officials said they had been flying to a makeshift airstrip set up on a wide
stretch of road in the western Nafusa mountains. They are reported to be
staying outside the capital and only visiting it during the daytime.

But the chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, and other key leaders are
staying in the east because of the lack of security in Tripoli, and because of the
stream of foreign dignitaries wanting to meet them.”

further analysis here


Libya: Tripoli Stands in Defiance of NATO
Reports of rebel leaders presiding over Tripoli a confirmed lie.
by Tony Cartalucci

“Despite sweeping headlines claiming the Benghazi rebel terrorists have shifted
their leadership over to Tripoli after continuous claims of the city falling to
rebels after over a week of continuous fighting, BBC has slipped out the fact
that this claim is a verified lie. Buried within an article titled, “Horror scenes at
Tripoli hospital,” BBC conceded that the rebels have constructed a makeshift
landing strip in the western Nafusa mountains where they are “reported to be
staying,” only visiting Tripoli in daytime for quick photo opportunities. The
article continues by also conceding the self-proclaimed, unelected leader of the
rebels, Abdul Jalil and “other key leaders” are staying in the east because of “the
lack of security in Tripoli.” That is of course when these “key leaders” aren’t
groveling in Doha, Paris, and Rome before their Western sponsors.

This definitively exposes the current operations inside Libya as a desperate
psychological war with the corporate media explicitly deceiving the public with
misleading headlines under which facts are buried by mountains of minutia,
carefully worded propaganda, unverified innuendos, and outright lies.

NATO & Rebel Murder-Spree Creating a Real Humanitarian Crisis

In another disturbing development, it appears that the rebels control a single
concentration of troops within Tripoli that are scrambling from one NATO
designated objective to another, streaming in after aerial bombardments on
civilian infrastructure and leaving in their wake mass murder and complete
social dysfunction. A hospital in the previously government controlled Abu
Silem district has been abandoned after a NATO bombardment followed by
rebel advances. NATO bombs also destroyed a local fire station and there are
now reports of black Africans turning up in large numbers, dead, in hospitals.
While BBC has officially written them off as “suspected mercenaries,” it should
be noted that just like every nation on earth, Libya’s population includes diverse
demographics, and considering its location on the continent of Africa, many
black citizens. ”

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By SoTexGuy, August 29, 2011 at 10:46 am Link to this comment

As noted ” Lebanese law, in other words, bestows more value on the life of a bigwig than a prole”.

Here in America this is institutionalized at every level of Government, the Media and Society.. Any number of ordinary people can be killed, kidnapped, disappeared, raped, burned and whatever and it’s a blurb on our collective consciousness.. If that person is some official, including a uniformed official well then we march in the streets, bring out the tubas and the bag-pipes.. rend our clothes, tear our hair, put the flags at half mast and pledge even our revenge.

A uniformed official especially is worth many times what an average taxpayer is.. watch the news if you doubt it.. It is such an enshrined philosophy that there is a whole different vocabulary for violence and death done by officials of the governments from that occasioned by the ordinary riff-raff.

Everyday people of course never ‘get away’ with offing anyone in uniform.. and receive the harshest penalties if they somehow avoid being shot down in the streets.

Those ‘in charge’ are capable of lesser offenses if they stick to killing just folks.. whether in a BART station or on a bridge in New Orleans.. then dead people were ‘provocative’ or simply deprived or their rights!

What a joke.


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By blogdog, August 29, 2011 at 12:05 am Link to this comment

NATO generals too may one day be forced to stand in the doc at the World Court
and if not, at least face their condemnation in the court of public opinion, just a
do the prosecutors - past, present and future - of the most heinous tragedy of
modern times: The Global War OF Terror

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By Silas Monmonier, August 28, 2011 at 8:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Now, how do we put Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz on trial?

I recently discovered a most applicable quote that is attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

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By Elayamathy, August 28, 2011 at 5:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Everything is true. Only thing missing is the reference
to the very recent warcrimes in Srilanka.

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