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What Laws of War?

In a perverse way, maybe it’s progress that the US is now admitting that it doesn’t really care about how many civilians it kills in its efforts to “decapitate” a few suspected terrorist leaders.

Still, it’s disturbing in the extreme to see this admission reported without comment in the US corporate media, which treats the information like just another announcement about how the latest war is being fought — say what kind of ammunition is being fired by the Reaper drones being sent into Syria, or what kinds of bombs the F-16s are dropping.

Here was the White House announcement, as reported by Michael IsIkoff in Yahoo News:

The White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.

A White House statement to Yahoo News confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria’s Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23.

The article then goes on to state:

Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Yahoo News…that a much-publicized White House policy that President Obama announced last year barring U.S. drone strikes unless there is a “near certainty” there will be no civilian casualties — “the highest standard we can meet,” he said at the time — does not cover the current U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

The “near certainty” standard was intended to apply “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Hayden said. “That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.”

Isikoff goes on to write that “Hayden added that U.S. military operations against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Syria, ‘like all U.S. military operations, are being conducted consistently with the laws of armed conflict, proportionality and distinction’”

Left unsaid is that those same laws of armed conflict — we are here really referring to the Geneva Conventions, treaties concerning the legal conduct of war that were negotiated by and signed into law by the United States and most other countries of the world — make invading another country that does not pose an imminent threat to the invader a war crime of the highest order.

What, American journalists should be asking, is the point of worrying about whether one tactic or another, whether it’s the use of depleted uranium weapons, the dropping of white phosphorus incindiary weapons, the torturing of captives, or the launching of drone-fired missiles at targets known to contain innocent civilian men, women and children?

The US has become such a rogue nation, and this president and his advisors in the State Department, National Security Council and Pentagon such a gang of war criminals, that it is beyond absurd to debate whether specific tactics in their illegal wars, notably the latest war against Syria (supposedly being waged, at least now, against ISIS, but then, the targets being bombed are actually Syrian), are in compliance or not with “the laws of armed conflict.”

But as long as we are talking about this “change” in American targeting rules, those “laws of armed conflict” which the White House and the NSC claim the US is adhering to with such “distinction” actually require the attacker to consider the matter of proportionality. Just by way of example, it would not by any stretch of logic be “proportional” to blow up a school full of children because some terrorist leader was hiding there.

And yet that is essentially what President Obama is doing in Syria. Just a few days ago, the US had a drone launch Hellfire missiles into a Syrian town where “several Al-Qaeda leaders” were thought to be plotting attacks on America. There’s no indication as to whether any of those alleged leaders were killed (so far most of the buildings attacked by the US have proven to be empty). But what is known is that the attack destroyed a home for civilian refugees, killing as many as a dozen of them, including women and children.

Proportional? I don’t think so.

I suppose President Obama will eventually issue some kind of apology that we “killed some folks” in Syria. But aside from the criminality of that one act, and the others like it that are occurring now with regularity, particularly as the US drops even the pretense of insisting on “near certainty” about a target’s being clear of civilians before destroying it, we won’t be hearing him apologize for the major crime, which is the illegal invasion of Syria.

The UN Charter, approved by the Senate signed into law by the US, declares that the single greatest war crime is the Crime Against Peace, which is defined as “planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of wars of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing.” This crime was described by the chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, Robert Jackson, as being “he supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Under the terms of that Charter, the only legal war would be one approved by the UN Security Council. The one exception to this would be in the case where a country had reason to believe that it was in “imminent danger” of attack, in which case it would be legal for it to respond by launching a pre-emptive attack to defend itself. Clearly, the beheading of a couple of journalists does not rise to that standard. Nor, even, would evidence that a terrorist cell in some country was plotting to attack the US ‘homeland,” as claimed by the White House.

As I wrote at the top of this article, it’s a step forward to see a mainstream news article at least questioning whether US drone attacks that kill civilians in Syria might be violating the laws of war. But we’re a long ways away from seeing any of the corporate media suggesting that the air war the US has launched in Syria itself might be a “Crime Against Peace.”

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

 

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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