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When War Criminals Retire

George Bush just celebrated his 60th birthday, and in his rare free moments, it would be natural for him to begin to consider how–and where–he’ll spend his time after leaving office. He seems to enjoy the ranch in Texas, and will of course be involved in setting up his presidential library, and work on behalf of his favorite charities.

As a former president, there will of course be many invitations to travel and speak on a wide variety of subjectsand that is where my advice comes in. Bush should bag the foreign travel.

In 1998, Chilean general and former president Augusto Pinochet, who was in London seeking medical treatment, was indicted for his involvement in torture and extra-judicial killings in Latin America in the 1970’s. In June of 2001, former Secretary of State Kissinger was forced to flee his hotel in Paris, and take a hasty flight back to America, to avoid a court summons to answer questions on his involvement with Pinochet’s reign of terror. The following month, a Belgian court ordered Prime Minister Sharon of Israel to appear before a Brussels court to answer charges stemming from the massacre of some 2000 Palestinian refugees in 1982 during Lebanon War.

England, France and Belgium are all signatories of the Geneva Conventions, and the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Both of these treaties have articles covering “grave breaches” or “grievous violations” under which signatory states have a solemn, affirmative obligation to bring violators into their own court systems for prosecution, or to turn them over to an international court, as when Slobodan Milosevic was sent by Serbia to The International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague in 2001.

Standing in court is accorded to family members of those who have been tortured, summarily executed, “disappeared”, etc. “Violators” include both those who actually perpetrated the torture/assassination, etc. and those who ordered or, by their action or inaction, are deemed responsible for the violation. Heads of State and senior government officials are immune from prosecution, until, that is, they have left office. This process has become known as “the principle of universal jurisdiction”.

For a very long time–decades in the case of the Geneva Conventions–it was in practice the government of a country directly involved in a conflict which brought individual violators to justice, or tried to do so. In 1999, for example, the Clinton Administration urged Austria to arrest Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, Sadam Hussein’s second in command, so he could be tried for his role in the poison gas attack which killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja in 1988. Austria didn’t move in time, and Al Douri fled back to his own country, as Kissinger would do in Paris in 2001.

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson may have best described the concept of universal jurisdiction when she wrote, in 2001:

“The principle of universal jurisdiction is based on the notion that certain crimes are so harmful to internal interests that states are entitled–and even obliged–to bring proceedings against the perpetrator, regardless of the location of the crimeor the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim.”

Former President George W. Bush will be invited by wealthy friends to enjoy the pomp and circumstance in Britain; the glories of Paris, Rome and Madrid; the charm of Swiss mountains; horse rides on beautiful haciendas in Argentina, Chile and Mexico. These were the perks of people like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who have left the Office before him.

But he will not know where and in which of these places charges may have been filed…by family members of people who were flown on un-marked dull, grey-painted planes to remote airports to be tortured or “disappeared”..or family of men, women and children who were summarily executed by soldiers in places like Haditha, Bakuba or Mahmoudia..or relatives of civilians whose bodies were lost in the flattened rubble of downtown Falluja.

Indeed, some of the questions which French judges wanted to ask of Henry Kissinger in Paris in 2001 had involved the secret, high-altitude carpet bombings of Cambodian towns and villages during the Vietnam War.

No, former President Bush would be wise to stay home in Texas in his retirement. It is highly unlikely that he would face imprisonment in his own country, as did General Pinochet. George Bush should enjoy the barbeque, and ride his horses through the mesquite. Maybe invite former Vice-President Cheney down to the ranch for some hunting.

STEPHEN GREEN, author and former guest editorialist of the Christian Science Monitor, is already retired, from the UN, lives in Berlin, and is a member of the Vermont House of Representatives.