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War crimes – about the present, not the past

Saturday, July 25, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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A friend drew my attention to this NPR show about human rights in Afghanistan. It is worth a listen if you have any interest at all in human rights or in the future of Afghanistan.

The subject matter of the show may be news to many of you. Sadly, for those of us who have worked on human rights in Afghanistan it is an old and protracted story. The show covers the work of human rights investigators to document a mass grave site in northern Afghanistan. There is evidence that this mass grave holds the bodies of hundreds of Taleban fighters who had been taken prisoner by Northern alliance troops under the command of General Dostum, a US ally and, until early 2008, Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Afghan National Army. The evidence is that these hundreds of prisoners were killed by suffocation after being left in shipping containers.

What is particularly important to an American audience about this case is the evidence that the Bush administration was aware of this massacre and the mass grave and that some steps were taken to prevent full investigation of the case.

Nathaniel Raymond, who has been heading the investigation into the Dasht-e-Laili massacre makes two critical points in this interview, and it is worth listening all the way through to hear them. He counters two of the most common arguments made against doing this kind of work. I know because I encountered these arguments myself repeatedly throughout my work in Afghanistan and sometimes they were being made by my own UN colleagues, political officers who argued that the investigation of war crimes committed by people like General Dostum could destabilise the delicate balance of power in Afghanistan.

Raymond responds with a line I know I've used dozens of times myself, but which is no less true for it's repetition. He says:

The people of Afghanistan are fighting more than the Taleban, they are fighting a culture of impunity.

My political colleagues could argue that the support of Dostum and the Northern alliance was essential to the Afghan government's war against the Taleban. But I believe, based on many conversations with hundreds of ordinary Afghans who have been living with impunity and the rule of the gun for decades, that the long term stability of Afghanistan depends on bringing an end to impunity and restoring some confidence that crimes like the crime at Dasht-e-Laili will be prosecuted and their perpetrators will not be free to continue to wield their power with total disregard for the law or the basic rights and humanity of others.

Raymond also addresses the other argument that is often made against investigation of the Dasht-e-Laili site in particular, which is the argument that because the victims were Taleban fighters they deserved what they got and we shouldn't waste our time on them. His argument in response is that the decision to investigate the case is not about the Taleban but about the US, it is a question of whether or not the US is willing to uphold the international laws of war that it helped, once upon a time, to create.

Personally, although I think that is an important point, for me it is more fundamental than that. The protection of the laws of war must apply equally to everyone or they have no value whatsoever. These laws were born out the horrors of World War II and we can probably all imagine how Nazi atrocities against Jews might have been justified by their regime at the time.

I'm not suggesting that the massacre of hundreds of Taleban combatant prisoners of war is at all equivalent to the Nazi massacres of hundreds of thousands of Jewish civilians. But I am saying that the very intent of the laws was to provide certain basic protections to civilians in times of war and different, but nonetheless important, protections to captured combatants in time of war. If we begin to accept the argument that some people are not deserving of the protection of international laws then we are on a very slippery slope.

This was my life and my work in Afghanistan and I accept that my perspective is coloured by that experience. I respected my political colleagues and accepted that they saw different aspects of the overall picture. But I never accepted the argument that prosecuting someone like General Dostum carried such a risk of destabilising Afghanistan that it outweighed the devastating impact his continued impunity was having on the confidence ordinary Afghan had (or, more accurately, did not have) in their legal system and in the international community, including the US.

Finally, I wanted to share two of the comments that were left on the NPR site. I was impressed and quite moved by the second comment and it reminded me, once again, that those of us who have lived and worked as civilians in places afflicted by war may have more in common with military veterans than we often acknowledge.

The first commenter said:

Instead of dwelling in the past, the human rights groups should get
their boots on the ground where trouble is now, Darfur for example, and
take such steps as they can to end the ongoing atrocities there.

In response, a US veteran of the Vietnam war said:

"Dwelling in the past"? So, since any murder necessarily took place in
the past, the murderer shouldn't have to pay for his crime? I'm a USMC
veteran of Viet Nam, and I'm here to tell you that a war crime is a war
crime, no matter when it took place. The only way to stop war crimes
from occurring is to follow them up, and punish the perpetrators. Any
other course of action is not acceptable, and is not worthy of any
civilized country, much less our America, the supposed moral leader of
the entire world. To point to the atrocities that are committed by
those on the other side, in justification of our commission of
atrocities, is not any kind of an argument that a court of law, or your
mother, would accept.


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11 Responses to "War crimes – about the present, not the past"

  1. Paris Parfait says:

    Yes, a war crime is a war crime and should be prosecuted as such. We are still discovering the crimes perpetrated during the Bush admin. No one is above the law.

  2. Imohena says:

    A culture of impunity is truly a devastating and devilish thing. Here in the Eastern Congo, the government forces and other armed groups are responsible for ongoing mass sexual violence, which largely goes unpunished. The devastating impact on the tens of thousands of women and children who have survived rape, sexual violation and torture does not need to be spelled out. As in Afghanistan, the perpetrators are untouched by the law. The soldiers here are largely free to continue doing what they are doing, which is ignored and often even condoned by their superiors. In this case as the victims are mostly women and children, I wonder if somehow the lack of attention to this issue is because they are not men and somehow their lives are worth less?

  3. Swirly says:

    I think this is what is lost in so many of the articles and reports that come to us from Afghanistan and other parts of the world – the perspective of the ordinary citizens of those countries.
    Governments should not be able to choose when it is convenient to abide by laws they created. Unfortunately, I think the message being sent to ordinary citizens these days is that those in power have the ability to ignore laws and act with impunity on a military, economic and social levels even though these actions create tremendous suffering.

  4. I’m sitting here digesting the gravity of all this. Things I’ve heard, things I know, and things I believe.
    You said it: “If we begin to accept the argument that some people are not deserving of the protection of international laws then we are on a very slippery slope.”
    Thank you for reminding and for being a brilliant voice, and a deep root, holding solid against the erosion of basic human rights.

  5. I work among former UN political officer types, and their support for impunity in Afghanistan is absolutely maddening. I understand where they are coming from, but I side with my former colleagues at the OSCE, human rights lawyers who believed that bringing to justice those responsible for the most serious crimes is as much a matter of practical state-building and peacekeeping as of lofty principles, or even law.
    And I wish, OH I WISH more people would read the “A Call for Justice” and “Blood-Stained Hands” reports. I have now made it my personal policy not to let anyone argue about war crimes in Afghanistan with me until they can prove they have read at least one of those reports.

  6. Ka Ea Lim says:

    It’s discouraging and frightening to know that Karzai may win the coming election. He has appointed Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a notorious warlord allegedly responsible for a series of massacres in the 1990s, as his vice president.
    One of the reasons why the culture of impunity is so ingrained in the country is that the leaders themselves will be able to remain safe under this abomimable flaw.
    I conducted an interview with an Afghan civil society activist recently regarding the electoral campaign. You can find this here:
    From this interview, it’s obvious that justice must first be served before Afghans can finally achieve peace and security.

  7. hello fellas, I just want to emphasize the good work on this blog, has excellent views and a clear vision of what you are looking for.

  8. War crimes always will be crimes. No meter time.

  9. Why was it ok to try Nazis and Japanese for war crimes, but not muslim terrorists?
    Just wondering if a democrat can let me know what they think about this. How come it was fair and acceptable to have the Nazis and Japanese stand trial for war crimes, but when we try to do the same military war crimes trials today with islamic terrorists somehow that’s now wrong. What changed? Or were FDR and Truman racist, bigot, warmonger, neocons also?

  10. Are war crimes applicable to a person who ordered the crimes to be done, but physically had no hand in it?

  11. What were some Confederate war crimes during the civil war?
    I know they had a Gulag I mean Andersonville prison where they tortured and slaughtered people but what were some other war crimes the Confederates Committed

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