I'm all for war crimes trials in The Hague – so long as we agree to prosecute every possible war criminal

Reflect on the fact that Rifaat al-Assad had been in Europe for decades after he was first accused of sending his Defence Brigades to massacre civilians in Hama. He was worth millions. He lived in luxury in London at a time when I was asking why Scotland Yard didn’t pay him a visit

Robert Fisk
Thursday 28 September 2017 15:24 BST
Images of torture victims and dead bodies on display at the UN in New York
Images of torture victims and dead bodies on display at the UN in New York

I like the idea of war crimes trials. Make an example of the monsters, is what I say. “Collar the lot,” as Churchill demanded in a somewhat different context. And if Nuremberg was victors’ justice, I’d prefer the imperfect trials they did hold than the version we would have got if Hitler had won and Roland Freisler, State Secretary of the Reich Ministry of Justice, was still running the Nazi People’s Court.

Right now, it’s becoming quite the thing to demand war crimes indictments all over the place. In the past week, we’ve had TRIAL International demanding that the Swiss judicial authorities act against Rifaat al-Assad for massacres at Palmyra prison in 1980 and at Hama in 1982. Rifaat is the brother of the late Hafez and uncle of Bashar, against whom Amnesty and the UN Commission on Syria would also like to level war crimes charges (according to Carla del Ponte, at least). And now the UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution to collect evidence against Isis for “acts that may amount to genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

And I’m all for a little balance if we’re going to hunt down the perpetrators. War crimes investigators tried to spread the blame after the Bosnian war; Bosnian Muslims and Croatians were taken to The Hague as well as some of the more notorious Serb criminals.

I once bet a Warwickshire police officer that he’d never get Milosevic into court. He was absolutely adamant. “We’ll get him, we’ll see him in The Hague,” he said, as he drove me to another mass grave. And I was wrong and he was right; but of course, Slobodan died in prison (as rather too many defendants did at The Hague) before judgment was pronounced.

But no matter. The word went out that you don’t get away with war crimes. Nor did Saddam, though his trial was a farce, and liberal Europe had to feebly protest when the man they claimed was worse than Hitler got topped while his Shia Muslim executioners jeered at him on Sunni Islam’s holiest day.

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We have to remember that when Saddam was convicted in that most un-Hague-like court in Baghdad, he was charged not with gassing the Kurds but with killing dozens of Shia Muslims in an almost forgotten massacre years earlier. The Kurds were stunned. But then we have to remember that the US gave Iraq precursors for their gas – from New Jersey, were they not? – so a trial about the gassings and Saddam’s own evidence might have been a bit embarrassing for us all.

I suspect something similar may pop up if we grab a real leader of Isis and question him about where he got all the weapons he used for his mass slaughter across Iraq and Syria. Even when David Cameron commissioned an enquiry into “terrorist funding”, our saintly Theresa had to keep it secret to avoid embarrassing our Saudi friends. But don’t the funders buy the guns that Isis uses? Are they immune from justice?

I remember a phone call I received in Beirut from a Hague official who asked me to give evidence against a Serb concentration camp commander whom I’d interviewed in Bosnia. I said he could use my reports but that I wasn’t going to play reporters during a war and then turn into a spy when the war was over. I was threatened with possible arrest if I was not prepared to give evidence. So I said I would certainly cooperate with The Hague – if they charged all the war criminals in the Middle East. And – Sabra and Chatila being a Palestinian massacre I had personally witnessed – I asked when charges would be brought against the Lebanese Christian militiamen who killed up to 1,700 men, women and children in 1982 and, more importantly, against the man who sent them into the camps: the Israeli minister of defence and later Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At which point – do I need to bother with this? – the Hague official who had been so officious, immediately hung up the phone. And (gasps of surprise) I never heard from him again.

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But this is the point. Those who go around demanding war crimes trials don’t really want to “collar the lot”, do they? They want to pick and choose their monsters, to ensure that the arrest of the guilty won’t embarrass those who fund their courts and their lawyers and who pay the UN’s bills and who spend much of their time – before they bomb the offending criminals – comparing their enemies to Hitler.

It’s interesting, for example, to reflect on the fact that Rifaat al-Assad had been in Europe for decades after he was first accused of sending his Defence Brigades to massacre civilians in Hama. He was worth millions. For a while he lived in luxury in London at a time when I was asking in The Independent why Scotland Yard didn’t pay him a visit.

TRIAL International has been having some problems with the Swiss. Hearings postponed, shortcomings in legal procedures, attempts to forget about the case, that sort of thing. Why? According to the principle of universal jurisdiction, Switzerland has a duty to prosecute the authors of war crimes present on its territory.

Now I grant you that TRIAL’s accusations are a bit vague. They say Rifaat’s brigades killed “10,000 to 40,000” of the population in 1992. I was briefly in Hama at the time. I said up to 20,000 then, but it might have been nearer to 10,000. So where did this entirely new figure of 40,000 come from?

In the same way, Amnesty indicted the Syrian government – and Rifaat’s nephew – for the hanging of “between 5,000 and 13,000” civilians at Sednaya prison during the Syrian war. Yes, but which is it? Five thousand itself would be a war crime – and Amnesty spent a lot of time on their report – but if that’s the real figure, where did 13,000 come from? One of these figures can’t be true. You know which one made the most headlines.

Of course, we all know that since the Syrian regime has all but won its war (though never underestimate the Hand of Fate), it’s Isis that’s more likely to end up in court than anybody else. And since the use of gas is another war crimes charge made against the Syrian government, what about the carefully reported transfer of gas from Turkey to the Syrian Islamists? The only legal action taken so far has been to lock up the Turkish journalists who revealed Turkey’s little war crime. Certainly, the Sultan of Turkey – you know who I mean – is not going to be questioned by The Hague.

And we are not – surely we are not – going to charge men who killed half a million Iraqi children with sanctions before the 2003 war. For that would mean indicting the UN itself. Nor are we going to indict the men who killed up to half a million Iraqis after the 2003 war. Because that would mean we’d have to impugn the integrity of old George W as well as that man whose name I can scarcely pronounce – you know the chap I mean, used to run the Labour Party, hilariously appointed a “peace” envoy to the Middle East and currently runs a well-funded “Faith Foundation”.

Yup, I am all for war crimes trials. For Rifaat. For Isis. For the Syrian regime and for the Iraqi regime (whose militias seem to be pretty good at tossing prisoners off walls) and for Erdogan and for the Taliban and for those nice chaps in that friendly Gulf state which builds lots of mosques, but whose names are kept secret in a British government report for fear that the said state would be very rude to Theresa May; and for George W Bush and for the British prime minister who was his contemporary.

That’s the rub. Justice is for all, but some are not equal before the law. They are way above it. Just think about Yemen for a moment. Could be a lot of indictments there. Ten thousand dead. Forty thousand wounded. And we know who’s doing the bombing and we know which countries assist the folk who are doing the bombing and we know who lets Britain make its little contribution to this war crime. Someone who lives in the very same building where Churchill once said: “Collar the lot.”

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