John Howard and War Crimes


The International Criminal Court, active since 2002, is getting busier, though much of its activity still remains buried in preparatory paperwork.  It has begun fielding petitions on a growing list of war criminal suspects with some regularity. The first sign that more work would be coming its way came in March 2003 when the invasion of Iraq took place.  The war crimes dossiers in the hands of activists and non-government groups began thickening. 

Such activity was given a push by a collection of outraged and eloquent statements on the invasion by a few prominent people, none more distinguished than Harold Pinter.  Pinter’s speech on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize of Literature in 2005 bears remembering.  ‘The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law.’  The lie of emancipation came packed in the forms of cluster bombs, depleted uranium and torture networks.

The candidates as potential bench warmers for the Hague dock are of course, President George W. Bush, and ex-Prime Ministers Tony Blair (Britain) and John Howard (Australia), an Anglo-centric, some might even say Anglospheric cabal that is now receiving the attention of innovative jurists and enterprising activists. 

The latest update in the prosecution machine lies in a brief compiled by activists based in Australia on the subject of charging John Howard with an assortment of crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC.  This should not come as a surprise to Howard.  As early as  March 20,  2003, he was put on notice by 41 affiliates of the Victorian Peace Network, acting through the Australian firm Slater and Gordon, that government ministers would, in the event of an invasion of Iraq, be ‘investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted for being complicit in excessive and unjustifiable loss of civilian lives and devastation of non-military infrastructure.’

Howard is more used to regarding the ICC as an acronym of cricket rather than crime.  But a legal brief to a body more versed in punishing crimes of politics than code violations of a one-time imperial sport was lodged (June 14) by Melbourne-based activist Tim Anderson and John Valder, former Liberal Party National President.  Other members of this eclectic group backing this move are Senator Lyn Allison of the now defunct Australian Democrats, prolific cartoonist Michael Leunig, renowned classical guitarist John Williams and American anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. 

The alleged war crimes, noted in the brief to the ICC, centre around ‘the unwarranted and excessively lethal armed attack and invasion of Iraq’ with specific war crimes against specific persons detailed in various annexes to the document.  Pictures are appended, and the names of victims attached.  John Howard, through his ‘express personal executive decision and action’ is alleged to have perpetrated ‘war crimes by ‘the conduct’ of such an unwarranted, excessive and disproportionate use of force.

Anderson and his colleagues had been active in compiling a list of petitioners to back a series of charges against the former prime minister.  The charges in one specific petition are hefty.  Complicity in the killing of civilians in Baghdad, Basra, Khormal, Babel, Nassariya, Najaf, Karbala and Anbar in March 2003 through an assortment of weapons comes first, followed by complicity in the killing of ten members of the Sabri tribespeople in Afghanistan in May 2002 and the killing of prisoners after the US-led ‘Anaconda’ operation in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-Kot in March 2002.  Involvement in the attacks on the civilian population of Fallujah (April and November 2004) is also alleged; as is Howard’s connections with the international torture network established under the directives of the ‘war on terror’.

Such a process of investigation is necessary, if for no other reason than to overcome the vicious normality such acts as the Iraqi occupation have assumed.

The ICC is, however limited in how it can reach into the throes of politics.  While the days of state impunity are seemingly numbered, much international law remains a creature of contract and diplomacy, rather than civics and morality.  It is, for instance, curtailed by the ratification process – countries reluctant to participate don’t have to, and the Bush administration is a notable absentee, amongst other countries, from the process.  We are then left with the heroic, if vain antics by concerned citizens, who cite the violation of local laws as the basis of their actions.  But if the ICC does, as the Nuremberg trials were intended for, put forth a record, to indelibly memorialize the uncatalogued dead, to not merely unearth the mistakes but the crimes of a conflict, then it would have gone some way to achieving its purpose.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com.





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