America’s war criminals

By Jonathan Power

Someone, somewhere, has to say it – that the U.S. harbours war criminals of its own and they have served not that long ago at the apex of power in the American government.

Alas, no one is going to act like the recently deceased Robert McNamara who served as Secretary of Defence under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In one speech he described himself as a war criminal – for being party to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for his role in the Vietnam war.

The Obama Administration has to move faster and harder. Last month President Barack Obama implicitly criticised himself for not getting the Guantanamo prison closed. Admittedly to do so has been made very difficult as the Republicans in the Senate have blocked his every move. But he could do more, like transferring some federal courts to Guantanamo.

One wonders if once again if it will all come to nothing, as did the talk that has gone on for decades about prosecuting the former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger.

There is a cottage industry of researchers, journalists, lawyers and academics out to destroy Kissinger’s formidable reputation. For years he has kept them at bay, even if at times he has come near to being nailed, as with William Shawcross’ formidable book, “Sideshow”, which alleged that with the bombing campaign he unleashed on Cambodia he effectively destroyed an almost innocent bystander of the Vietnam war.

Kissinger, who became a media star during Nixon’s term of office with his unique combination of intellectual prowess, hide-toughened realpolitik and an unflinching ability to successfully woo any glamorous film star that crossed his path, has managed while out of power to remain a darling of the movers and shakers in American high society. The bullets that would fell a lesser man appear to simply bounce off him and he remains courted by business, politicians, journalists and society hostesses whose presence, they believe, will add yeast, or rather a frisson – the authentic touch of raw and unapologetic power – to any occasion you care to name.

I can be no judge of the charges made on his role in Cambodia, Cyprus and East Timor but I can speak on Chile which I researched in detail for my book “Like Water on Stone” (Penguin 2001).

Chile was unique in Latin America with an almost unbroken continuous democracy since independence in 1818. But in the presidential election of 1970 a Marxist socialist, Salvador Allende, surprised Washington by winning 36.2% of the vote in the first round. The CIA in an intelligence memorandum observed that the U.S. “has no vital interests with Chile – an Allende victory would not pose any likely threat to the peace of the region”.
But Nixon and Kissinger hit the roof. Kissinger was minuted as saying: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” A couple of weeks later Nixon, with Kissinger’s ardent approval, gave Richard Helms, the CIA boss, the widest possible authority (“a marshal’s baton” Helms later called it) to prevent Allende’s presidency by any means available.

Although the U.S. ambassador to Chile came to Washington and strongly argued to Kissinger and Nixon that a military coup would not be in the best interests of Chile, and although Kissinger later claimed he called off the CIA operation, Chile’s chief of staff, General Rene Schneider, who was known to be strongly opposed to a coup, was duly murdered. The assassins were the very conspirators the CIA had funded earlier. Washington followed this with a severe economic squeeze that gave General Augusto Pinochet his opening. On September 11th, 1973, Pinochet ordered the bombing of Allende in the presidential palace and immediately ordered the arrest and torture of thousands of Allende supporters.

Two years later, after Amnesty International had widely publicized the ongoing torture of suspected dissidents, Kissinger, in a conversation with Patricio Carvajal, Pinochet’s foreign minister, said “I hold the strong view that human rights is not appropriate for discussion in a foreign policy context”.

Thus the man who, along with Nixon, had made the illicit coup possible turned his back on the consequences.

After Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998, the ruling by Britain’s highest court, the House of Lords, crystallized half a century’s debate on the legal and political problems of accountability for crimes against humanity. For the first time in a high court anywhere it was decided that sovereign immunity must not be allowed to become sovereign impunity. For that we have to thank most of the nations of the world, including the U.S. of Ronald Reagan and the Britain of Margaret Thatcher who put their signatures to the UN Convention Against Torture and thus laid the legal basis for the British ruling.

Now, since the vote in Rome in the summer of 1998 approving the statute creating the International Criminal Court, the means are available to try people who are accused of all crimes against humanity, not just torture. Unfortunately it can’t act retrospectively.

Society should have other means of punishing Kissinger and one way would be to take him off the pedestal on which he now stands. This man should be scorned not feted. It is time overdue that western high society stopped courting a man who, for all his intellectual bravado, is arguably nothing more than a common war criminal.

Last but not least there need be no reticence about prosecuting senior members of the Bush administration who used torture against suspected members of Al Qaeda. It is still not too late for the International Criminal Court to step in and demand their arrest and tell the US that they should put them on trial. Regrettably this would require the consent of the UN Security Council which the US would never consent to. But it is time overdue to make a fuss anyway and put the issue back in the public eye.

© Jonathan Power 2013

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