War Crimes & the US
When Slobodan Milosevic, the former President of Yugoslavia, appears before the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague, he ought not stand alone. General Wesley Clark (retired), commander of the NATO air war against Serbia, should be up there with him. And since there is no statute of limitations on war crimes or crimes against humanity, it would seem in order to bring former Senator Bob Kerrey and Henry Kissinger to the docket as well.
The first of these defendants will probably stand trial. The next three will be unlikely ever to see the inside of an international court of justice, but all have almost certainly violated the 1949 Geneva Convention. And in Clark and Kerrey’s case, the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice. As for Kissinger, the rap sheet is as long as your arm and the butcher bill almost beyond reckoning.
Let’s start with Clark. The Geneva Convention prohibits bombing that is not clearly justified by military necessity, and the protocols specifically bar targets that have a civilian function. But NATO aircraft bombed railway stations, bridges, power stations, communication networks, factories, petrochemical refineries, warehouses, sewage and water-treatment plants, hospitals and schools, killing almost 2,000 civilians in the 78-day bombing campaign. In the words of Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Study, “The NATO bombing violated specific rules of war. Our government has committed war crimes by bombing civilian infrastructures.”
This past April, U.S. troops helped arrest Dragan Obrenovic, the Bosnian Serb commander of the brutal assault on Srebrenica in July 1995, and hauled him to The Hague for trail. The White House said the arrest was an “essential step in consolidating the peace and promoting the rule of law in Bosnia.” Agreed. Now let’s put Clark alongside him.
On the night of Feb. 24-25, 1969, then Lt. Bob Kerry and his U.S. Navy Seal team assaulted Thanh Phong hamlet in the Mekong Delta. The mission was part of “Operation Phoenix,” a CIA program aimed at assassinating civilians friendly to the National Liberation Front. When the Seals retreated, somewhere between 14 and 20 civilians were dead, all women and children, but for one old man. Even before the Seals got to the village, according to Gerhard Klann, one of the seven-man squad, Kerry ordered the execution of several civilians. Murdering civilians is specifically forbidden, not only by the Geneva Convention, but the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Kerrey claims his unit was fired on when it approached Thanh Phone, and that the villagers were killed when his squad returned fire. Even if his story were true—and the Vietnamese survivors dispute it—his Seals had already slit the throats of the first civilians they had come upon.
Since there are three surviving witnesses to the massacre at Thanh Phong, doesn’t this incident belong in a court? Let Kerrey present his witnesses, let the Vietnamese present theirs, and let the judges decide. Isn’t this “the rule of law”?
Where does one begin with Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and serial killer extraordinaire? Let’s list just a few of the things he did while in charge of U.S. foreign policy:
* He ordered the Christmas bombing of Hanoi that killed over 2,000 civilians and flattened Bach Mai hospital.
* He organized the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia that killed almost a million civilians, and resulted in the reign of Pol Pot, who killed another million.
* He facilitated the Phoenix program which systematically murdered at least 70,000 civilians from June 1967 through 1970. In 1970, a U.S. Congressional study found that the program “appears to have violated the 1949 Geneva Convention for the protection of civilians.”
* He aided Operation Condor, where the military dictatorships of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador assassinated, tortured and murdered political opponents throughout South America. Kissinger was chair of the Interagency Committee on Chile at the time when Condor operatives arrested and murdered American Charles Horman in Chile. State Department documents released in 1999 indicate that the U.S. fingered Horman.
* He endorsed Indonesia’s 1975 genocidal invasion of East Timor. The day before the attack, Kissinger, then Secretary of State, was in Jakarta telling the press that the “U.S. understands Indonesia’s position on the question” of East Timor. The takeover ended up killing 600,000 Timorese.
While a certain numbness creeps into your soul when you start totting up Kissinger’s crimes, those abominations should hardly paralyze the wheel of law. Three countries are already after the man. In May, French magistrate Roger Le Loire subpoenaed Kissinger to testify about the murder of five French civilians by Operation Condor. Kissinger fled Paris the next day. Then in June, Argentine judge Rodolf Canacoba Corral issued Kissinger a summons to answer for the disappearance of its citizens. Chilean judge Juan Guzman Tapia is also seeking to question Kissinger concerning the murder of Charles Horman.
In a sense, the problem is deciding where to stop the list of potential war criminals. Kissinger certainly engaged in war crimes in Vietnam, but so did General William Westmoreland and a host of other commanders—the “I was just following orders, and it was a complex war” gang—who created free-fire zones, imprisoned civilians in strategic hamlets, and released troops to take part in Operation Phoenix. And what do we do about the civilian leaders who knew exactly what was going on in places like Thanh Phong, but saw it as a “necessity of war”?
This country has never acknowledged that Americans can commit war crimes. Indeed, while we may arrest Serbs and send them to The Hague, the U.S. does not recognize the jurisdiction of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal. Congress only passed a law against war crimes in l996.
However, we are still bound by the Geneva Convention, which recognizes no statute of limitations on war crimes and allows those so charged to be tried in other countries. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet dodged just such a trial in England by pleading ill health, and recently, several Catholic nuns were convicted in Belgium of crimes against humanity for their participation in the 1994 genocidal rampage against Tutsis and their Hutu allies in Rwanda.
The U.S. may never bring its rogues gallery to trial, but if I were Messrs. Clark, Kerrey, and Kissinger, I would be mighty careful which countries I traveled to in the coming years.