Thursday, 28 April 2011


Is the difference for victims between 'terrorism' and war crimes only in what the party defining the terms intends and not much as far as actual activity? Should war crimes invariably committed by the state be in the same category as 'terrorism' invariably linked to insurgent groups or renegade states? And is it the case that the world's sole superpower is the only one that has the political, legal and moral authority to define war crimes and terrorism, while exempting itself by silently invoking the doctrine of American Exceptionalism?

From the French Revolution's 'Reign of Terror' (1793-1794) until the US 'war on terrorism' (Patriot Act following the 9/11) the topic of terrorism is one that has been controversial largely because of what it means and its impact on an open society rooted in a democratic tradition and human rights and civil liberties protection.

Many books and articles analyze the topic from different ideological and political perspectives. But governments around the world have their own definition for practical considerations to apply it in policy against group (s) that threaten the status quo. For example, the US defines Hezbollah as terrorist. As far as Syria is concerned, not only is Hezbollah is a freedom-fighting organization, but the US and Israel are guilty of war crimes against Palestinians. Who decides who is right and who is wrong?

War crimes are defined as violations of laws and humanitarian conduct in time of war - abusing, torturing or killing POWs and/or civilians, targeting schools, hospitals, mental institutions, and other non-combatant non-military-related targets. While it is generally acknowledged by many scholars that war invariably has a devastating impact on non-combatants, especially women and children, and that atrocities ranging from looting to rape and murder are inevitable, some standards ought to be maintained that distinguish acceptable from unacceptable conduct that may result in genocide as we have numerous cases in the last century from Armenian and Jews to Cambodians and Rwandans.

The Holy Roman Empire Tribunal of 1474 held the first “international” war crimes trial, thus setting a precedent. The Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), Geneva Conventions (1864 to 1949), and the International Criminal Court (2002) based at the Hague are the legal international institutions to which governments and organizations resort to for war crimes cases. Because there is a direct link between war crimes and state-sponsored terrorism, it is useful to examine these issues together, and to include 'insurgent terrorism' carried out by rebel groups fighting against established regime (s).

Clearly the term 'terrorism' implies violence and use of force, whether by insurgent groups or the state. However, is it violence and use of force only if carried out by non-governmental groups, or is terrorism something that states are also engaged in that various conventions throughout history also classify as 'war crimes'? Various US agencies  have their own definitions of terrorism that they limit to 'insurgent rebels' and exclude the state from such conduct, except in those cases where the state is an openly declared enemy (for example, the US has Iran, Syria, and North Korea, among others, on its list of state-sponsors of terrorism, but it does not have Israel on that list, and certainly not itself).

FBI definition: "Terrorism is the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."  U.S. State Department definition is that terrorism is "premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."

"The Reign of Terror" coined the term terrorism during the French Revolution, raising the issue of what constitutes legitimacy, if the state that accords legitimacy to itself is the instrument of killing innocent civilians, engaged in mass murder or genocide. In addition there is the issue of ideology attributed to 'terrorism'. For example, Stalin's Communist regime was committing terrorist acts in the name of Communism, while the atrocities by pro-West authoritarian right-wing regimes were excused because the governments were defending themselves again rebel violence preemptively or not.

The US has resorted to 'support of terrorism' or war crimes from the US-Spanish American War where it used terrorist tactics in the Philippines to Nicaragua in the 1920s, Guatemala in the 1950s, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, Chile in the 1970s, Nicaragua, Panama in the 1980s, Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to the present. As a supporter of terrorism carried out by authoritarian regimes in the last century, the list is very long and it includes states from South Africa and Zaire to Indonesia and Greece, Portugal and Spain during the eras of dictatorships that ended in the mid-1970s.

Documented cases of allegations against US for war crimes (state-sponsored terrorism):
1. 1902: Lodge Senate Investigating Committee of US war crimes in the war against Philippines

2.  1943: Canicatti and Biscari massacres - US troops massacred Italian civilians in Biscari, Italy and German and Italian war prisoners in Biscari, but no one was ever charged. General George Patton dismissed the massacres of dozens of people as exaggerations.

3. 1945: Dachau massacre - US troops killed German prisoners of war. General Patton dismissed the charges.

4. The Pentagon's Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Files confirm US war 320 separate cases of war crimes, excluding My Lai Massacre of 350 unarmed men, children and women, that US Army documented.A single conviction came out of that era.

5. Agent Orange - French-based  International Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange violated the Hague Convention of 1907, Geneva Conventions of 1927 and 1949.
No one was ever held accountable. The US District Court of Brooklyn dismissed a law suit in the case in 2005 on the basis that: "No treaty or agreement, express or implied, of the United States, operated to make use of herbicides in Vietnam a violation of the laws of war or any other form of international law until at the earliest April of 1975."  The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled that "Agent Orange and similar U.S. herbicides cannot be considered poisons banned under international rules of war."

6. NATO bombing of Yugoslavia: 1999 - 400-1000 civilians killed in deliberate targeting of civilians and infrastructure. No one prosecuted.

7. 2002: War on Terror - A presidential memorandum gave the right to interrogators to deny prisoners basic protections as stipulated by the Geneva Convention, thereby permitting violations resulting in war crimes. On that basis, US personnel carried out torture of prisoners that the US classified as 'unlawful combatants', thus circumventing Geneva Convention rules. US Justice Department redefined the law to allow for war crimes to be committed and at the same time not be held accountable.

8. 2006: Human Rights Watch charged that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was criminally liable for his involvement in the abuse of a Guantanamo detainee. In November 2006, legal proceedings went ahead in Germany against Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, and a number of other Bush administration officials. The Military Commissions Act of 2006, however, provided amnesty for war crimes for they were carried out against the War on Terror.  Both Tony Blair and George Bush were accused before the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Iraq, but the US has not signed the treaty that would have given jurisdiction to ICC. The UN Security Council could have charged Bush and Blair for well known crimes in Iraq, but US has veto power.

In April 2011, El-Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2009, charged that US administration officials were guilty of war crimes. Under Bush in 2002-2003  sought to manipulate the UN nuclear inspection team in Iraq into a US-directed inspection team intended to find non-existing evidence as a pretext for the US to declare war on Iraq. After 700 inspections of potential weapons sites in Iraq, the inspector found no evidence to support the bogus U.S. claims of weapons of mass destruction. El Baradei may be motivated

 The Soviet Union was guilty of state-sponsored terrorism, but US-backed dictatorships around the world, including apartheid South Africa were not on the same list. Besides legitimacy that people believe stems from statehood, there is the issue of moral equivalence between insurgent violence and state sponsored violence.
Wikileaks has now uncovered documents from 2002 to 2008, revealing that the Bush administration's 'War on Terror'" was itself a terrorist campaign at several levels. In addition to human rights violations of foreign nationals, the civil liberties of US citizens suffered in the process because government operated as a police state.

Memos from the joint task force at Guantanamo to U.S. Southern Command in Florida indicate that US government knew that a number of  Guantanamo detainees were innocent. Nevertheless, the US continued to detain innocent people because of the following reasons: a) substantial resources were spent to capture suspects; b) it was politically embarrassing to release them after classifying them 'high risk'; c) it would have sent the wrong signal to admit mistakes were made and it would have projected an image of 'softness' on terrorism.

The policy of detaining innocent men in Guantanamo started with Bush but continues under the Obama administration that argues of the 171 in detention most are awaiting military trial. A decision to close the detention facility where state terrorism has been taking place in the last ten years is no longer an option. Moreover, the US Patriot Act that in effect has resulted in US becoming a quasi-police state is continuing under Obama and lawmakers are likely to extend it.

Meanwhile, the US has turned a blind eye, in some cases support, for known 'terrorist' groups is
indicative of the hypocrisy of the 'war on terrorism. For example, the US has no problem with the Kurdish groups opposed to Syria and Iran, although they could be classified as 'terrorist', nor does it have a problem with the Iranian Mujahedeen-e Khalq Organization, or MEK, whose goal is to overthrow the current Iranian regime.

Interestingly enough, the CIA in its web site acknowledges that it does have the freedom to work with what it labels as 'unsavory' elements, that is, terrorists. We know that the US has not only collaborated with 'the enemy' in Afghanistan, but it has gone as far as allying itself with mother of terrorism al-Qaeda to bring down Gaddafi regime in Libya. What is the world coming to when the US declares war on terrorism and then collaborates with terrorists in a number of Muslim countries?

While war crimes are the most serious form of state-executed terrorism, they invariably go unpunished, except in few cases where the powerful nations have decided to punish a regime and/or reigning or former leader by leveling war crimes charges. The most egregious cases of war crimes carried out by the militarily  powerful nations go unpunished. By contrast, nations from US to Israel, from Russia to China are free to define 'terrorism' as they see fit against insurgent or dissident groups using violence and to punish the offenders as they see fit.

Like the Cold War around which US and other governments built their institutions, 'terrorism' as a replacement is designed to:
a)  engender conformity into US citizens and the world
b) permit the US to operate globally with impunity by exercising military options unilaterally where it wants to and with NATO backing when it must. 
c) keep the US influential globally. As a waning economic power, US has no other cards to play but the military one as a means of exerting global influence.
d) provide the legitimate cover for pursuing police state methods while claiming to defend 'freedom and democracy'.

On 28 September 2012, the US State Department removed the Iranian dissident group MUJAHEDDIN a-KHALQ, otherwise terrorist by any definition that any one without an ulterior agenda would use, from the official 'terrorist' list. Placing and removing dissident organizations on the terrorist list based solely on a political criteria intended to undermine a third part, in this case Iran while placating Israel, totally discredits the use of the term terrorism by anyone's definition. Naturally, the civil war in Syria and the ongoing instability in Iraq, combined with the seemingly endless disagreements between the US and Israel on drawing a red line for Iran - presumably the nuclear program currently devoted to energy and medical purposes - were important factors in the US removing the terrorist group MUJAHEDDIN e-KHALQ from the list of terrorist organizations. 

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