Robert Fisk: Prosecuting war crimes? Be sure to read the small print

 

Share
Related Topics

It's good to see bad guys behind bars.

Especially if they're convicted. Justice is better than revenge. And justice must be done for the relatives of the victims as well as for the dead. Part two of the Mubarak trial this month was a case in point. Egyptians want to know exactly who ordered the killing of innocent demonstrators. Who was to blame? And since the buck stops – or is meant to stop – at the president's desk, how can Mubarak ultimately escape his just deserts? The same will apply to Gaddafi when – if? – we get him.

Ben Ali? Well, he'll stay, presumably, in his Saudi exile – which is anyway as near as you can get to a death sentence – since his in absentia trials in Tunis were travesties of justice. Bashar al-Assad? We shall see if we need him or not. Gaddafi? Probably better dead than sent to trial, because he would probably do a Milosevic, mock the court and die in custody. Please note that no tribunals have called for the princes and emirs of the Gulf, or the Plucky Little King of Jordan, or the weird President Bouteflika of Algeria and his henchmen, or the much creepier President of Iran, to be put on trial.

When we decided to keep Hirohito on his Japanese throne, we winnowed down the number of Japanese war criminals to be hanged. Oddly, it was Churchill who wanted the worst of the Nazis to be executed on the spot; it was Stalin who wanted a trial. But then again, Stalin wasn't going to be accused of the mass murder of millions of Soviet citizens, was he?

It all depends, I think, on whether criminals are our friends (Stalin at the time) or our enemies (Hitler and his fellow Nazis), whether they have their future uses (the Japanese emperor) or whether we'll get their wealth more easily if they are out of the way (Saddam and Gaddafi). The last two were or are wanted for killing "their own people" – in itself a strange expression since it suggests that killing people other than Iraqis or Libyans might not be so bad. In other words, civil war killers are just as likely to end up on the hangman's noose.

Or are they? In Lebanon, for example, things aren't that simple. While America would like to know who planned the bombing of its Beirut marine base in 1983, killing 241 US servicemen, it has no war crime trials planned. Nor do the Lebanese. In fact, two amnesties for killers of the 1975-90 civil war specifically exempt all murderers from trial except those who killed religious or political leaders. An interesting distinction.

If your mum and dad were butchered by a crazed neighbour who happened to be of a different religion, the murderer will not go to court. If, however, he knocked off the local priest or imam, he has no immunity. Lebanon's 1991 amnesty, for example – Article 3 for those who like to peek into legal inanities – stipulates that amnesties do not apply to those who commit "the assassination or attempted murder of religious dignitaries, political leaders, Arab and foreign diplomats". Lebanese law, in other words, bestows more value on the life of a bigwig than a prole.

As the Lebanese jurist Nizar Saghiyé puts it: "We have to forget collective massacres, crimes against humanity, ordinary victims – only the murder of a leader is supposed to be punished." When a Lebanese parliamentarian pointed out that this denied the constitution's insistence on equality before the law, the Lebanese president declared that a politician was a "national symbol". This also means that political leaders who have ordered torture and mass murder – of course, I meet them socially in Beirut today – are safe from prosecution. The killers of up to 150,000 Lebanese are also safe, unless they tried to knock off a bishop or a sayed or a warlord.

Just why civil wars are so cruel – and thus, surely, deserving of even more condign punishment – remains a legal mystery. In his preface to Aïda Kanafani-Zahar's splendid analysis, Liban: La guerre et la mémoire (Lebanon: War and Remembrance), Antoine Garapon suggests that because love is the opposite of hate, the most fraternal of communities can become the most murderous: "The cheerful neighbourliness between the (religious) communities – which is the glory of Lebanon – becomes its hell." Thus the Lebanese civil war was "a crime of passion", he says. Kanafani-Zahar draws attention to the fact that the murder of Christian Maronite president-elect Bashir Gemayel in 1982 was followed only a few hours later by the massacre of up to 1,700 Sabra and Chatila camp Palestinians by Israel's Phalangist allies (Gemayel being their now dead leader); yet only Gemayel's assassination was referred to the Lebanese "Council of Justice".

In Bosnia, criminals continue to be sought, although the war had much in common with the Lebanese conflict. Lebanese Christians usually supported the Croats (the Phalangists sent them weapons) while Arab Muslims naturally sympathised with the Bosnian Muslims. In Lebanon, however, there were official village "reconciliations", attended by Muslim and Christian prelates and political leaders. Not so in Bosnia.

But justice? As long as the killers are alive – however old they are, however long ago their crimes were committed – justice would seem to be served by punishment. John Demjanjuk's trial in Germany this year is a case in point. Reconciliations and amnesties are a postponement of justice in the hope that the victims' relatives will die off and their descendants will lose all interest in the outrages of the past. Unlikely. Who now remembers the Armenians, Hitler asked? Millions of people, is my reply.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference