Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Belgium holds US to account

An attempt to try the commander of US troops in Iraq, Tommy Franks, for war crimes has predictably outraged officials in the American government

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The armed forces of the US, in other words, appear to have taken short cuts while prosecuting their war with Iraq. Some of these may have permitted them to conclude their war more swiftly, but at the expense of the civilian population. Repeatedly, in some cases systematically, US soldiers appear to have broken the laws of war.

We should not be surprised to learn that the US government has responded to the suit with outrage. The Department of State has warned Belgium that it will punish nations which permit their laws to be used for "political ends." The Belgian government hasn't waited to discover what this means. It has amended the law and denounced the lawyer who filed the case.

The George W. Bush government's response would doubtless be explained by its apologists as a measure of its insistence upon and respect for national sovereignty. But while the US forbids other nations to proscribe the actions of its citizens, it also insists that its own laws should apply abroad. The Foreign Sovereignty Immunities Act, for example, permits the US courts to prosecute foreigners for harming commercial interests in the US, even if they are breaking no laws within their own countries. The Helms-Burton Act allows the courts in America to confiscate the property of foreign companies which do business with Cuba. The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act instructs the government to punish foreign firms investing in the oil or gas sectors in those countries. The message these laws send is this: you can't prosecute us, but we can prosecute you.

Of course, the sensible means of resolving legal disputes between nations is the use of impartial, multinational tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. But impartial legislation is precisely what the US government will not contemplate. When the ICC treaty was being negotiated, the US demanded that its troops should be exempt from prosecution, and the UN Security Council gave it what it wanted. The US also helped to ensure that the court's writ runs only in the nations which have ratified the treaty. Its soldiers in Iraq would thus have been exempt in any case, as former president Saddam Hussein's government was one of seven which voted against the formation of the court in 1998. The others were China, Israel, Libya, Qatar, Yemen and the US. This is the company the American government keeps when it comes to international law.

To ensure that there was not the slightest possibility that his servicemen need fear the rule of law, Bush signed a new piece of extra-territorial legislation last year, which permits the US "to use all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release" of US citizens being tried in the court. This appears to include the invasion of the capital of the Netherlands.

All this serves to illustrate the grand mistake British Prime Minister Tony Blair is making. The empire he claims to influence entertains no interest in his moral posturing. Its vision of justice between nations is the judicial oubliette of Guantanamo Bay. The idea that it might be subject to the international rule of law, and therefore belong to a world order in which other nations can participate, is as unthinkable in Washington as a six-month public holiday. If Blair does not understand this, he has missed the entire point of US foreign policy.

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