Sunday, February 15, 2009

On the U.S. Duty to Prosecute War Crimes (Part I)

Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly...
In the United States, questions around prosecution of war crimes revolve around the use of torture by Bush Administration officials, as well as the illegality of the U.S. attack on Iraq, which resulted in over a million deaths.

As regards torture, the Bush administration's head judge at Guantanamo has already admitted that torture was used at that facility, and dropped the charges against one high-profile detainee, Mohammad al-Qatani, as a result.

When it comes to the attack on Iraq, there was this report in the Guardian late last year:
Addressing the British Institute of International and Comparative Law last night, [former British senior judge, retired, Lord] Bingham said: "If I am right that the invasion of Iraq by the US, the UK, and some other states was unauthorised by the security council there was, of course, a serious violation of international law and the rule of law. "For the effect of acting unilaterally was to undermine the foundation on which the post-1945 consensus had been constructed: the prohibition of force (save in self-defence, or perhaps, to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe) unless formally authorised by the nations of the world empowered to make collective decisions in the security council ..."
If you read for awhile the various blog and mainstream press opinion pieces on the issue of prosecuting American officials, you will come across a good deal of pessimism and ignorance. Some of the critics of prosecuting are well-informed, but present one-sided views of the difficulties involved in making such a prosecution. But UN officials seem to find the issue quite straightforward.

From The Jurist:
[A]ccording to a statement made by UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment Manfred Nowak in an interview Tuesday with German television program ZDF Frontal 21. Nowak said that such actions constituted a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a party. Nowak noted that although evidence is available to press charges, he does not know whether US law would recognize the interrogation techniques used as forms of torture.
There are a number of instruments whereby U.S. officials are vulnerable to war crimes charges. The UN Convention Against Torture required implementing laws to be established in signatory states. Consequently, the U.S. "enacted 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340 and 2340A, which prohibit torture occurring outside the United States (torture occurring inside the United States was already generally prohibited under several federal and state statutes criminalizing acts such as assault, battery, and murder)" (see CRS report).

Besides CAT, the U.S. has a duty to prosecute Bush administration officials, both civilian and military (and intelligence), for torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. H/T to Charles Gittings (emphasis added):
“The High Contracting Parties [signatories to the Geneva conventions, which includes the U.S.] undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches of the present Convention defined in the following Article.

“Each High Contracting Party shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts. It may also, if it prefers, and in accordance with the provisions of its own legislation, hand such persons over for trial to another High Contracting Party concerned, provided such High Contracting Party has made out a prima facie case.

“Each High Contracting Party shall take measures necessary for the suppression of all acts contrary to the provisions of the present Convention other than the grave breaches defined in the following Article.

“In all circumstances, the accused persons shall benefit by safeguards of proper trial and defence, which shall not be less favourable than those provided by Article 105 and those following of the present Convention.”

Geneva III POWs, art. 129, Geneva IV Civilians, art. 146; see also 18 USC 2441(c)(1).
The issue seems clear. But opponents of prosecution, or sometimes just political pessimists who deem themselves "realists," cite the issue of prosecutorial discretion, believing there is no provision within, for instance, the CAT treaty, that requires prosecution. U.S. prosecutors are free to use their discretion in selecting whom they investigate and charge. This is not entirely wrong, although this passage from Chris Ingelse’s book The UN Committee Against Torture: An Assessment, puts the issue of prosecutorial discretion into greater legal context (H/T Kevin Jon Heller -- emphases added):
Article 7, par. 2 grants the authorities a discretionary power in terms of whether or not they prosecuted a suspect of torture. The Committee confirmed — in abstract terms — that the discretionary power was not unlimited and could not be determined on the grounds of national law only. In any event, the discretionary power could not extend as far as to allow those responsible for torture to escape punishment. The Committee found that there had to be opportunities for an individual to submit a complaint against prosecutors who fail to prosecute suspects of torture. If necessary, there had to be an opportunity for the victim himself to initiate criminal proceedings against the person suspected of torture.
As a matter of principle, the duty to prosecute is well established in international law. Ironically, it was the United States, along with its World War II allies, that pushed to establish this principle.

From University of Queensland Law Journal re "The United Nations and International Criminal Law" (emphases added):
In the NurembergTrial of the Major War Criminals, the International Military Tribunal held that ‘international law imposes duties and liabilities upon individuals as well as states’ and that ‘individuals can be punished for violations of international law.’[33] The Tribunal went on to proclaim:
Crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.
The Nuremberg Tribunal even went so far as to hold that the doctrine of nullim crimen sine iure must not be allowed to stand in the way of bringing persons to justice for acts which they must have known amounted to criminal conduct under international law:
To assert that it is unjust to punish those who in defiance of treaties and assurances have attacked neighbouring states without warning is obviously untrue, for in such circumstances the attacker must know that he is doing wrong, and so far from it being unjust to punish him, it would be unjust if his wrongs were allowed to go unpunished.
The next period will determine whether the U.S. will continue to alibi U.S. war criminals. The calls for some kind of investigatory commission should not be definitively ruled out, but any decision on such must follow a determination of whether to prosecute Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Addington, Yoo, Rice, Haynes, and all the gang for crimes against humanity. To fail to do so, especially for lame excuses such as prosecutorial discretion, is in itself a crime and a violation of treaty obligations. Any use of "Truth" or "Truth and Reconciliation" commissions as a way to bypass the necessary prosecutions, as some fear is the plan of establishment Democratic Party liberals, should be opposed.

As Glenn Greenwald put it so well in an article last month:
The principal purpose of the Convention is to remove the discretion involved in prosecuting acts of torture and to bar the very excuses which every torturing society proffers and which our own torturing society is now attempting to invoke ("we were dealing with real threats; there were 'exceptional circumstances' that justified it; we enacted laws legalizing the torture; our leaders meant well; we need to move on").

International treaties which the U.S. signs and ratifies aren't cute little left-wing platitudes for tying the hands of America. They're binding law according to the explicit mandates of Article VI of our Constitution. Thus, there simply is no way to (a) argue against investigations and prosecutions for Bush officials and simultaneously (b) claim with a straight face to believe in the rule of law, that no one is above the law, and that the U.S. should adhere to the same rules and values it attempts to impose on the rest of the world.
For more on this issue, please click here to read Part II, which looks at relevant Supreme Court decisions, and the intervention of the notorious John Yoo into the treaty issue.


Anonymous said...

nice summary. thanks for including the salient portions of previously ratified documents. i'm off to read part ii.

Valtin said...

We must not accept what others tell us about important documents. The lawyers tend to mystify things. Anyone with a decent education can understand these documents, and see for themselves what they say, or understand the controversies around them.

I hope, Kelly, that you found Part II as informative.

David said...

Thanks for this article. Where you mention "CAN", are you referring to the Convention Against Torture" in which case shouldn't it be "CAT"?

Anonymous said...

For a different take on torture and Guantanamo bay and other similar facilities

Valtin said...

David, thanks for picking up the typos. I thought I'd fixed them, but have gone back and made the corrections now. I appreciate the heads up!

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