Accountable across the board

Azza Radwan Sedky
Tuesday 12 Apr 2022

Before the current perpetrators of war crimes are held accountable, the prosecution of previous ones is a must, writes Azza Radwan Sedky


he images of bodies strewn on the streets and of the mass graves of civilians bound hand and foot and then shot in Bucha near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv have led the world to accuse Russian forces in Ukraine of crimes against humanity and Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes.

The international fury over these killings is understandable since these atrocities are unconscionable. Leaders around the world have voiced their condemnation.

Us President Joe Biden has called for Putin to be tried for war crimes, saying that “this guy is brutal, and what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that Russia’s “despicable attacks” on civilians are “more evidence” of war crimes. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has claimed that the Russian invasion of Ukraine constitutes “genocide” and that the Russian forces there are engaged in “terrorism.”

The Geneva Conventions provide guidelines that must be adhered to during wartime, and some of them are highlighted below. Under the conventions, forces engaged in combat must not deliberately attack civilians, use torture, or take hostages. They must not use chemical or biological weapons.

They must also respect the lives, dignity, personal rights, and convictions of those detained. Persons not taking a direct part in the hostilities, or incapable of performing their combat duties during war, are considered to be “hors de combat” and are entitled to their lives being respected.

But before we go further, we should define the term “whataboutery.” This conjoins “what” and “about” and compares previous events to current ones in the hope of putting the latter into perspective. The term was coined during the late 1970s when the former Soviet Union, criticised over alleged human rights abuses, referred to alleged abuses committed by the West. “What about…?” emerged.

This article is going to do just that: launch a whataboutery. In all fairness, if previous perpetrators of war crimes and other abuses are not held accountable for the wrongdoings they have committed, how can such charges be applied to current offenders? How can they be held accountable?

The Geneva Conventions will back the whataboutery here, focusing on only a few of the crimes committed during the Gulf War in February 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“Respect for the lives of those not partaking in hostilities” says the Conventions. In February 1991, Iraqi soldiers retreating from Kuwait and heading home to Iraq during the Gulf War were ambushed by coalition forces led by the US on what came to be known as the “Highway of Death,” a six-lane highway between Kuwait City and the border of Iraq.

This resulted in the across-the-board destruction of thousands of vehicles and the deaths of their occupants. The exact number of vehicles destroyed remains unknown, but it is estimated to be around 2,000. The exact number of the occupants of the vehicles is also unknown, but a guess would be at least the number of the vehicles.

For ten hours, coalition forces went after the fleeing Iraqi soldiers. The scene the next day was that of an inferno, with thousands of mangled and burnt-out vehicles and quashed and charred bodies strewn across the highway.

The coalition forces were aware that the retreating soldiers were sitting ducks and that they had no intention or ability to fight back. They were not partaking in any hostilities, and yet their lives “were not respected”. The coalition forces should be held accountable for their deaths.

“Do not deliberately attack civilians” says the Conventions. The US military launched what it called a “shock and awe” attack on Iraq in March 2003, killing “7,186 Iraqi civilians in two months,” according to journalist Daniel Kenis of LiveStories.

If Putin is to be charged with war crimes, then former US president George W Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair should also be charged with war crimes over the thousands of deaths that took place during the invasion of Iraq.

A CNN article from 2013 by UK lawyer Michael Mansfield entitled “Why Bush and Blair should be charged with war crimes over the Iraq invasion” sets out the reasons why Bush and Blair should be tried for war crimes under international law.

According to Mansfield, the aim behind the invasion of Iraq was to remove former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from power, but regime change, however desirable, is not permitted by the UN Charter. Article 2 of this states that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” To circumvent this, Bush and his allies fabricated the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Invasion by itself cannot be prosecuted; however, any war crimes that follow can be. This means that “to launch an attack… with the knowledge that its effect is likely to cause incidental death or injury to civilians or the natural environment will render the perpetrator liable to prosecution,” according to Article 8 of the UN Charter.

“The use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium in Iraq by coalition forces [euphemistically called collateral damage] against vulnerable civilians falls within this definition,” Mansfield says. But will Bush or Blair ever be charged for the crimes committed in Iraq? If charging Putin is approved worldwide, then why isn’t it acceptable to charge Bush and Blair?

“Do not torture” says the Conventions. The crimes committed in Iraq did not stop with the invasion of the country and the thousands of lives lost. “Enhanced interrogation techniques,” ie torture, were utilised in full in Iraq.

The scandal at the Abu Ghraib Prison is proof of how far the brutality and abuse went. Photographs published in 2004 of what took place in Abu Ghraib were shameful and inhuman, showing naked prisoners heaped into a pyramid, prisoners held down with straps as though they were on leashes, dogs lunging at prisoners, and, perhaps the most repulsive of all, of a hooded man, Ali Al-Qaisi, standing on a box and holding electrical wires.

Another prisoner, Manadel Al-Jamadi, died while being tortured. One photograph showed his corpse in a plastic bag.

Those who committed the atrocities at the Abu Ghraib Prison were tried and convicted in the US but never in an international court. In fact, the idea of having the Abu Ghraib offenders charged in an international court never crossed anyone’s mind. Today, due to the atrocities that have occurred in Bucha the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has said that he will open an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Mansfield ends his article by saying that “without accountability for Western states, how can we expect the rest of world to respect these principles?” Without having previous perpetrators account for their war crimes, we should not expect current ones to be held to account for theirs.   


The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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