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Home > News > Columnists > Rajeev Srinivasan

Why some war criminals are more equal than others

January 11, 2007

The precipitate hanging of former President Saddam Hussein of Iraq on December 30 was probably inappropriate, illegal, and counter-productive. This is for several reasons: one, that there were several other cases against Hussein that should have been heard; two, that this punishment is likely to increase the level of violence in Iraq; but three, and most of all, because it is hard to escape the feeling that the proceedings were stage-managed.

The crime for which Hussein has been hanged was that of killing 148 people in Dujail. But there are far bigger crimes for which he could and should have been tried, for instance, the campaign against Kurds in which 100,000 may have been killed. And to get a sense of proportion, let us remember that one million (15 per cent of the entire population) were killed by the ghastly Marxist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during their heyday.

Furthermore, from India's point of view, Hussein was indeed a relatively good friend, in that he generally stood by India whenever Pakistan chivvied Mohammedan States into condemning India about imaginary oppression of Mohammedans. Besides, India did get relatively good terms on hydrocarbons from Iraq. Thus Hussein was far more useful than the Arab tyrants to whom India constantly and fruitlessly sucks up.

We must not forget that there were other positive things about Hussein's rule, as well, notwithstanding the fact that he was beastly to his own people on occasion, and did throw his weight around the neighbourhood a bit. Under his determinedly secular Baath Party, Iraq was one of the most progressive and prosperous of Arab nations, with little religious tyranny or oppression of women or non-Mohammedans.

Life for Iraqis under American occupation, with total anarchy and extreme bloodshed, is probably far worse than life under the dictatorial Hussein. Besides, the long years of the US-led embargo against Iraq deprived the nation of basic medical supplies and other critical goods, and led indirectly to the deaths, according to reputable reports, of roughly 500,000 Iraqi children: in effect, a genocide and a wiping-out of an entire generation.

Thus, an impartial observer could argue that the cure was worse than the disease, and that Iraq would have been better off if America had left it alone and not pursued the neo-conservatives' vendetta against Hussein. So who is to blame for the Iraqi casualties, including the above-mentioned Iraqi children? Will there ever be a war-crimes court to try the Americans who masterminded these moves?

Of course, we all know there will not be. These people will die peacefully when their time comes. And that is the crux of the matter. Why are they not accused and tried for crimes against humanity? Why the double-standards?

I have had mixed feelings about the American invasion of Iraq right from the get-go, as I expressed in a 2003 column The new crusade: It's about ideology, not oil. It is not that I opposed the invasion per se , although it would be convenient for me to claim so now that it has bogged down. No, I know the military-industrial-media complex needs a good little war now and then to try their latest toys out on foreign civilians (which India can also look forward to when untested, possibly obsolete American nuclear reactors arrive on Indian soil).

There are ideological plays as well. For instance, the Ethiopians -- with American blessings -- have just routed fundamentalist Mohammedans from Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. This may well be a good thing, but it is a crusade, nevertheless, Christian Ethiopians against Mohammedan Somalis.

Rather, my misgivings about the Iraq invasion were based on the many overt agendas on display. For instance, if the invasion were truly intended to spread democracy and to reduce anti-Americanism in West Asia, a far better candidate to invade would have been Saudi Arabia -- after all, the 9/11 bombers were Saudi, and all of the money going into Wah'abi triumphalist-Arabist indoctrination in the US (and everywhere else) is from Saudi windfall-profit funds.

But, of course, Texas oil-men have long been very cozy with Saudis, and much largesse has flowed from the Saudi embassy in Washington to many ex-ambassadors and other influential beings; therefore it was a matter of 'We can't attack Saudi Arabia, so let's attack someone else who's easier to beat up'. That appears more than a little unfair.

Besides, the entire weapons-of-mass-destruction controversy about Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons carried a whiff of self-righteous arrogance about it. The Americans were determined to find nuclear and biological weapons in Iraq, regardless of whether they existed or not. It was a case of 'truth by repeated assertion' that certain elements -- especially religious fundamentalists in the West -- excel at.

From the invasion to the hanging there is a simple logical thread. But the whole affair has made the Iraqi courts look like kangaroo courts controlled by Americans. This is unfortunate, especially at a time when American credibility is diminishing -- this is no way for an imperial power to behave. Caesar's wife must be beyond reproach, as they say. Even the appearance of impropriety is forbidden if you are peddling pax Americana.

It also makes it appear that there are double standards in terms of who is accused of crimes against humanity. I am yet to hear of any white Westerner who stands so accused, although there are some very deserving candidates. For example, Henry Kissinger, who instigated the holocaust in Cambodia, dragging a peaceful bystander nation into war and the horrors that followed.

This is precisely why the Americans will not submit to the rulings of the International Criminal Court: they are certain that their soldiers and others will be hauled up for genuine war crimes. There are examples: William Calley of My Lai fame; the unnamed airmen who massacred refugee civilians from the air in Korea; the men who ordered the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just like the British -- their queen should be tried for crimes against humanity for her role in Jallianwallah Bag and the horrors of Partition. But they are somehow 'untouchable'.

This dangerous hypocrisy -- one yardstick for Anglo-Americans and one for others -- seriously erodes the moral stance taken by the Bush administration. It also calls into question the celebrated war-crimes trial in Japan after World War II, in which a number of top Japanese military leaders were convicted and executed.

There was one dissenter at these trials, it is useful to remember: Radhabinod Pal, the lone jurist from India. He was of the opinion the trial was flawed, regardless of whether the accused were guilty as charged, which he accepted was possible. In his opinion (which was not allowed to be published by the occupying Americans), Justice Pal said: 'I would hold that every one of the accused must be found not guilty of every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted on all those charges.' This was because he had good reason to believe that it was a show-trial motivated by victor's revenge, and therefore unfair and illegal.

This is why I am overwhelmed with mirth whenever I observe Atlanticists (the Economist is a prime example) thunder against Japanese prime ministers visiting the Yasukuni shrine where their war dead are honored (and incidentally where there is a memorial to Radhabinod Pal). What about American presidents visiting the Arlington National Cemetery, where surely some of the interred were guilty of war crimes? What about British prime ministers visiting Westminster Abbey, ditto?

From these examples, we can now deduce the real meaning of 'war criminal': someone who makes life inconvenient for the Anglo-American ruling caste's interests, which, these days, means primarily oil. This, needless to say, is not exactly the most pristine, pure-as-driven-snow rationale for accusing people, and thus it would be appropriate to view the show-trials with much scepticism.

However, there is no point in India making a fuss about these proceedings. And that is not because of that ridiculous nuclear deal. It has now become fashionable to say that because of the nuclear deal -- otherwise known as a complete sell-out of India's national interests in perpetuity -- nobody must question anything the Americans do. That's not true at all; these are two different animals. No, the reason to keep quiet is that Iraq is not India's problem: It is somebody else's war.

A potential American attack on Iran is also somebody else's war: Let them fight it out. India's best bet is to maintain an inscrutable, Sphinx-like silence in things that are not India's business.

Comments welcome at my blog at

Rajeev Srinivasan