The only country in the world to use nuclear weapons is the United States. It dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, killing and injuring 200,000 civilians instantly. Within a few months, between 150,000 and 246,000 more people died of radiation poisoning.
Was this a war crime? Yes, according to later amendments to the Geneva Conventions. But the U.S. and its allies won the war, so only German and Japanese political figures and military authorities were prosecuted during post-war criminal tribunals in Nuremburg and Tokyo. Genocide, it seemed, was a matter of politics, not morals. Losers commit crimes against humanity, winners defend the “rule of law.”
It is yet to be determined who will “win” the horrific war in Ukraine, although the aggressor is clear. Russia is killing and injuring Ukrainian civilians by the thousands, incinerating cities, hospitals, and schools, and forcing mass migration and human suffering.
However, can President Biden stand on the moral high ground when he accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes? A brief look at this country’s stand on its own transgressions answers that question.
High crimes and hypocrisy. The only permanent international body with the authority to prosecute genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression is the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The ICC was formed under the auspices of the United Nations. After years of debate, 123 countries finally signed a treaty, known as the Rome Statute, by which the ICC was created in 2002. The agreement’s shortcoming is that it only governs those countries that sign on and stipulates it can only investigate and try individuals for violence and mayhem, not institutions or governments.
The U.S. and China, among a few others, voted against the treaty.
Russia ratified it and then withdrew in 2016 to avoid charges of atrocities in Syria and Crimea being laid against its armed forces.
The court issued its first judgment in 2012 when it found Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty of war crimes related to using child soldiers. Since then, a total of 46 individuals have been indicted by the ICC, including former Libyan head of state Muammar Gaddafi.
Currently court staff are carrying out investigations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Venezuela, Georgia, Afghanistan, Libya and twelve other countries. Almost none are in Europe or North America.
Over the years, various U.S. administrations have had varying attitudes toward the treaty. The main objection has been to the concept of giving the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over a member of the U.S. government or its armed forces.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton finally signed the treaty after the war in Kosovo. But he never sent it to the U.S. Congress for ratification.
Subsequently, the Trump administration went on an all-out war against the court. In 2018, President Trump’s National Security advisor John Bolton told the U.N. General Assembly, “As far as America is concerned the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy and no authority.”
To prove it, in 2019 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo banned visas for lawyers and court staff looking into U.S. murders of civilians in Afghanistan. The ICC’s investigations of Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians warranted more visa bans. Then President Trump issued a sweeping executive order in 2020 which threatened to sanction anyone, including journalists, looking into torture and other crimes by the CIA in secret detention centers.
In April, 2021, President Biden lifted Trump’s order but reiterated U.S. resistance to cooperating with the court. In opposition, Rep. Ilhan Omar submitted a resolution to Congress in the same month, signed by eight, lonely lawmakers, calling on the U.S. to join the ICC.
A rigged international order. The ICC tries only individuals; there is another court that is supposed to hold sovereign states accountable. This is the International Court of Justice (IJC), created in 1945 by the United Nations and which the U.S. signed onto in 1946.
In 1984, the IJC — sometimes called the World Court — ruled that it had jurisdiction in a case brought by the then left-wing, Sandinista government of Nicaragua against the U.S. Nicaragua charged the Reagan administration with violating international law by conducting a covert war against the country.
In an act of haughty arrogance, the U.S. refused to recognize the court’s authority and literally walked out of hearings on the case. Later it refused to pay reparations for the injury caused by secretly mining Nicaragua’s harbors and arming anti-Sandinista guerrillas.
Even so, the UN Security Council could have enforced a court ruling. However, enforcement is subject to the veto power of the five permanent members of the council, which the United States used in the Nicaragua case.
Fewer courts, more justice. Biden’s holier-than-thou display of shock at Russia’s brutal invasion is in the realm of Jeff Bezos calling out Howard Schulz for being greedy. Notwithstanding treaties and courts, war crimes are endemic to capitalism’s constant fierce competition for new markets and territorial influence. As long as the arms and energy driven imperialists are running the United Nations to suit themselves, while thumbing their noses at the rest of the world, workers will pay with their blood. If we want to do away with crimes against humanity, we have to replace the unsustainable, international profit system with a socialist one, once and for all, before the climate crisis — another crime against humanity — shrinks the habitable world.
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