Seventy years after the Nuremberg trials, international law must be applied equally to all powers

November 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials, a series of tribunals convened by the victorious Allied powers at the end of World War Two to prosecute the highest-ranking political and military leaders of the defeated Nazi German regime for war crimes. Hitler himself escaped punishment by committing suicide – a number of other highly-placed Nazi officials were by this time already dead by their own hand or killed while trying to escape the approaching Allied armies. Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front and organiser of slave labour, committed suicide rather than face his accusers.

However, the surviving elite of the Nazi party were rounded up and put on trial, the genocidal savagery of German imperialism laid bare for all the world to see. Hermann Goering, former head of the Luftwaffe was in the stand, along with the former deputy to the Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess. Julius Streicher, the rabidly racist editor of the German news Der Sturmer (The Attacker) was in the dock, facing trial for the vitrolic anti-Semitic commentary and images that he propagated through his newspaper. Streicher routinely advocated the extermination of the Jewish people in the pages of Der Sturmer, and this formed an important part of overall Nazi propaganda.

Hans Sauckel, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Wilhelm Keitel – these were the politicians and military officers who organised the murderous machinery of German imperial power, leading to the deaths of millions of victims. They were all now facing judgement – the prosecutors at Nuremberg organised the documents and files of the former Nazi German government to provide evidence of criminal activity and war crimes. Nuremberg established the principle of accountability – no single political and military leader could rely on their own national laws to legitimate their policies and practices. Now, international law was the standard against which the homicidal and racist politics of the German state was to be judged.

For the first time in history, the elite decision-makers of an imperial state were held to account for their actions. This is the historic significance of the Nuremberg tribunals. This is not to pretend that there were no problems with, or criticisms of, the Nuremberg trials at the time. The Soviets, sitting in as one of the presiding judges, had a long history of show trials in the late 1930s. Admiral Karl Doenitz, named by Hitler as his successor, was charged with attacking civilian maritime traffic during the war years in the Atlantic. While was found guilty of the crime of initiating a war of aggression, the charge of unrestrained maritime warfare was dropped. Why? US Admiral Chester Nimitz issued a statement admitting that the United States Navy carried out a practice of unrestrained submarine attacks and warfare against the Japanese enemy. The corresponding charges against Doenitz were cancelled. Not a single German commander was charged with carrying out aerial bombardment against civilian populations, because the latter tactic was a pillar of US and British policy towards Germany throughout the war years. Between December 1946 and April 1949, more tribunals were held, most importantly in Japan with regard to Tokyo’s war leaders and their crimes.

After overcoming the legal and procedural hurdles for proceeding with war crimes trials, the Nuremberg trials, taking place during the initial stages of the Cold War, were quietly forgotten as the former colonial powers began their plans for re-establishing control over their previous domains. France and Britain wanted to retain their glory days of empire, while the United States, fresh from its successful emergence as the leading economic and military power in the world at the end of the war, went on to expand its influence throughout the world. No charges for war crimes were ever brought against any American, British or French politician or military leader. There was an enormous problem of  ‘applying justice to ourselves’, as veteran Australian journalist John Pilger wrote when discussing the chances of bringing today’s crop of political leaders to account for their war crimes.

In 1998, while 160 countries met in Rome to establish a statute of an international criminal court, the way that the remit of the ICC has been applied in the ensuing years indicates an important feature regarding the current configuration of world power-politics. Every one of the 23 cases that are currently open at the ICC involves leaders and countries in Africa. Does that continent’s political leadership contain the majority of the world’s war criminals? Rather, this speaks to the selective and political motivated way in which criminal tribunals are applied to smaller countries, while the larger, greater purveyors of violence in the world continue to operate with impunity.

For instance, during the very year that the ICC was established – 1998 – then US President Bill Clinton carried out the premeditated and surprise bombing assault on Khartoum, the densely populated capital of the Sudan. The reason? The US offered the justification that the bombing targeted a chemical and biological weapons facility in the city, the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory. At the time, the Sudan was not at war with the United States, did not have any of its troops or military personnel stationed on US soil, or threaten the US in any way. There was no warning provided to Khartoum about the attack, the latter having a population of one million people. It is impossible to avoid civilian casualties when targeting a non-military facility – and indeed there were civilian casualties.

The Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory had produced medicines for use by the people in the city. Sudanese and foreign experts involved with the factory had intimate first-hand knowledge that no chemical or biological weapons were being manufactured there. The factory had only opened in July 1997, and was largely self-reliant in producing medicines for the Sudanese residents of Khartoum. Did the US, which had diplomatic relations with the Sudanese government at the time, provide any warning about the attack, or issue any protest to the Khartoum regime? No they did not. Without adequate supplies of vital medicines, it is the ordinary people of Khartoum that have suffered diseases as a result of this attack. The various, shifting justifications offered by the United States government at the time – that Sudan was harbouring Al Qaeda agents, that the Al-Shifa factory was producing nerve agents – all turned out to be false.

After the 1998 bombing, the Sudanese government offered to allow the US, and any UN-sponsored team of experts, to travel to Khartoum to conduct chemical testing to see if any chemical or biological weapons had been produced. The United States government refused. The irony of the attack on this factory was that only a few months prior to the bombing, the US-dominated Sanctions Committee at the United Nations agreed to contracts with the one and only Al-Shifa factory to provide badly needed medicines to the country of Iraq, the latter suffering under the dead weight of US-imposed sanctions. The President of the Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, called the 1998 attacks a war crime and former US President Bill Clinton a war criminal – an accurate description…..

This is not an endorsement of the Sudanese regime, a government that tortures and kills its own citizens with impunity, that jails dissidents for years without trial, that is guilty of using unrestrained force on its own people. This is an exhortation to apply the international laws equally to all powers, great and small. The Nuremberg trials established a valid precedent for bringing political-military leaders to account, not just in the case of Germany, but also in the case of say, the crime of fracturing a nation, like the United States 2003 invasion of Iraq. Rather than honouring the senior US leaders who planned and carried out the invasion of Iraq (Cheney has just had a bust of himself unveiled in Capitol Hill), it is high time to prosecute the war criminals responsible for the barbaric assault on Iraq, the latter still struggling with the horrific humanitarian consequences of that war until today. What does it say about the character of US political culture when, after the Obama administration has retreated from its pledges to prosecute Bush-Cheney-era war criminals, it is now protecting and honouring them? Iraq’s decline into a state of bitter sectarian division is directly attributable to the policies and practices pursued by senior American ruling class officials.

No more excuses – that is the title of a new report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), that elaborates the powerful legal case for pressing criminal charges against US military and civilian leaders for their culpability in the CIA programme of torture and illegal imprisonment. The report states that:

It is now well established that following the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operated a global, state-sanctioned program in which it abducted scores of people throughout the world, held them in secret detention—sometimes for years—or “rendered” them to various countries, and tortured or otherwise ill-treated them. While the program officially ended in 2009, the cover-up of these crimes appears to be ongoing.

Many detainees were held by the CIA in pitch-dark windowless cells, chained to walls, naked or diapered, for weeks or months at a time. The CIA forced them into painful stress positions that made it impossible for them to lie down or sleep for days, to the point where many hallucinated or begged to be killed to end their misery. It used “waterboarding” and similar techniques to cause near suffocation or drowning, crammed detainees naked into tiny boxes, and prevented them from bathing, using toilets, or cutting their hair or nails for months. “We looked like monsters,” one detainee said of his appearance while in CIA custody.

The HRW report stands as a searing indictment of the depraved and sadistic practices of the CIA, and also condemns those officials who authorised such treatment. The CIA and military personnel were allowed to torture with impunity because of the general erosion of civil liberties and the incremental drift towards police-state measures in the United States. The capitalist class, dispensing with traditional forms of representative democracy, is now embarking on the militarisation of society, the expansion of the coercive powers of the state apparatus, and the simultaneous assault on workers’ living conditions across the board. We would do well to remember the words of the late great Dr Martin Luther King, that the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence and militarism throughout the world. He correctly identified US militarism as not only a problem for its victims outside the United States, but also as part of a deeper malady inflicting his own society. Dr King accurately stated that while the US continued to spend millions recklessly and alarmingly on wars of aggression overseas, none of the social problems afflicting US society – racial and economic inequality, gun violence, social alienation, the breakdown of health and education, poverty – can be resolved.

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