by: Kara Crawford
A couple of weeks ago, former President George W Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and five key legal advisors were convicted as war criminals. The tribunal convicting them was the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal, which gave a unanimous guilty verdict on the charges of involvement in being aware of the torture of prisoners of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay under the Bush administration.
Accusations in the case included violations of the Geneva Convention on torture of 1949, the Convention against Torture of 1984, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Charter, and the US Constitution, with specific charges of Torture and Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading Treatment of the Complainant War Crime Victims.
However, there was one big and blaring catch to the proceeding: the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal is a “tribunal of conscience,” meaning it does not have the ability to issue punishment for such crimes. The names of the convicted individuals will be added to the symbolic “Register of War Criminals.”
Symbolically, this is an important act, as it gives an official international voice to what activists and victims alike have been insisting for years. On the other hand, unless the International Criminal Court or the United Nations decide to take action for punishment, I’m not sure if it is enough.
Some reflections on the decision comment that realistically international law and such decisions regarding its violation, while having symbolic moral value, are counterproductive and, in some cases, even enables crimes against humanity and the like. Frankly, I can understand where they’re coming from.
For the sake of transparency, I was never a Bush/Cheney fan to begin with, but the actions leading to this decision made their time in office unredeemable in my eyes. Therefore, though I am relieved that this decision has been made symbolically, I wish it had more than just symbolic power. Realistically, it all just seems like a symbolic slap-on-the-wrist to me, and frankly, I don’t think it will necessarily do anything constructive to deter future crimes against humanity and violations of international law.
My other problem with the decision is that I don’t feel it goes far enough in another aspect. While I know it addresses some of the most heinous war crimes committed under the Bush administration, I don’t think it addresses enough.
What about the estimated 130,000-plus civilians who have been killed as a result of US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 (a rather conservative estimate; less conservative estimates can reach more than 9 times that amount)? What about the many Muslims and immigrants in the US who have faced terrible profiling? What about the massive abuses of search-and-seizure allowed under the “USA PATRIOT Act?” There is much more at stake here which must be dealt with.
I don’t want to condemn the whole process for what it lacks, but I do not want to uncritically stand by and watch a system which has the potential to act in constructive ways to both respond to present cases and better deter future cases of crimes against humanity, human rights violations, war crimes, and the like.
I appreciate the symbolic power which the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal has and the way it recently used it in this case, but I can’t help but wonder what the result might have been had it possessed more than symbolic power to effectively scold the convicted war criminals sternly, but nothing else.
I can’t help but remember all of the people who have been victimized by the decisions of these individuals. There are not only hundreds of thousands of direct victims both in the US and abroad, but there are even more indirect victims, family and friends affected by deaths, disappearances, arrests, deportations. As someone who tends to stand on the side of the oppressed, victimized, marginalized, abused, and tortured individuals of this world, I don’t see how this decision brings any semblance of justice to the victims, particularly restorative justice.
I think that we need to re-envision the function that international law serves in these processes. If it simply serves a symbolic moral function, we’re not using it to its full potential. In cases like this one of such vast human rights abuses, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the like, international law like the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights need to be used in ways that will bring restorative justice, seeking wholeness and healing for the victimized individuals and communities affected by the acts committed, because if they don’t work on the victims’ behalf, they are not living up to their purpose.
Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been actively involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with the United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.