In early April, shocking video surfaced revealing the brutal murder of civilians by an occupying army. The year was 2010, however, not 2022, in Iraq, not Ukraine, and the soldiers were American, not Russian. On Apr. 5, 2010, Wikileaks, the whistleblower website, released a classified U.S. military video it called “Collateral Murder.” The video was recorded on July 12, 2007 aboard a U.S. Army Apache helicopter gunship as it fired on a crowd in Baghdad. Two Reuters employees were killed, along with at least eight others, and two children were seriously injured. The video includes audio of U.S soldiers laughing and swearing as they kill, as well as radio transmissions authorizing the attacks from their chain of command. Ultimately, only one U.S. soldier was prosecuted: Army Private Chelsea Manning was court martialed, not for participating in that attack on civilians, but for revealing it to the world.
“Collateral Murder” and the trove of documents Manning uploaded to Wikileaks, the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Logs, documented numerous atrocities committed by the U.S., in cold, military jargon.
In the twelve years since the video was released, military conflicts and the inevitable crimes that accompany them have raged around the world, from Congo to Sudan, Ethiopia and Tigray to Libya, from Yemen to Burma to West Papua, to name just a few. In Ukraine, the level of video and photographic documentation, satellite imagery and drone footage published instantaneously and shared globally is unprecedented.
Images of dead civilians littering the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, many executed with their hands bound behind their backs, have shocked the world. Hospitals have been bombed across the country, as have civilian shelters. Russia is also accused of deploying a new type of antipersonnel landmine, which explodes not only when stepped on but merely when a person walks near them. War crimes have reportedly been committed by Ukrainian defenders as well, against Russian prisoners of war and suspected collaborators.
So-called “rules of engagement” are regularly ignored in the all-consuming violence and barbarism of war. U.S. and coalition troops were guilty of this in Afghanistan, as documented by Manning’s disclosures to Wikileaks and often corroborated by journalists and human rights investigators. Few if any of those who committed atrocities will ever be held accountable.
“Unfortunately, the U.S. would not allow the International Criminal Court to even investigate potential U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan, and there were many of them,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CodePink, said this week on the Democracy Now! news hour, shortly after returning from a U.S. women’s delegation to Afghanistan. “The U.S. is not even a party to the International Criminal Court. It would be nice to have a judgment against those who took us into this war in Afghanistan.”
President Biden recently doubled-down on his accusation that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. Many world leaders are following suit. The traditional venue for investigation and prosecution of war crimes, since its founding in the 1990s, is the International Criminal Court (ICC), created by the Rome Statute, currently ratified by 123 nations. The United States has consistently rejected formal ratification, as has Russia. Ukraine as well is not a signatory to the ICC, but has granted the body limited jurisdiction over events in its territory since late 2013, when Ukraine was consumed by the Maidan protests, the overturning of its pro-Russian government, followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, ongoing military conflict in the Donbas region, and the current invasion.
Biden’s escalating rhetoric against Putin will continue to ring hollow as long as the U.S. rejects the ICC. In June, 2020, Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump went so far as to sanction senior ICC figures, blocking them from entering the U.S. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the ICC as a “thoroughly broken and corrupted institution.” What triggered the Trump administration was the ICC’s investigation of possible U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. Biden, to his credit, removed these absurd sanctions. But he still refuses to submit to the authority of the ICC, while at the same time promoting a war crimes prosecution of Putin.
We need a uniform standard of justice to hold accountable perpetrators of war crimes, wherever they may occur. The U.S. should join the majority of the world, ratify the Rome Statute, and respect the authority and jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
This column originally appeared in Democracy Now!