On the 16th of October 1946, Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremburg. His main crime was planning aggression: a war that is waged without the urgent pretext of self-defence. He was hanged after proof of his guilt was found in German cabinet documents. There is a more recent case of aggression: The war against Iraq. However, the politicians in Britain get to choose whether the cabinet documents that discuss the plans for war are made public or private and whether or not there will be war crimes trials; no politician that I know of has even suggested that option. According to international law specialist Richard Falk it is "inescapable" that the Iraq war was a "crime against peace of the sort for which surviving German leaders were indicted, prosecuted and punished at the Nuremburg trials". Why are British politicians guilty of aggression allowed to decide their own fate when Nazi politicians weren’t? Isn’t it the same crime?
In 2003, John Pilger reported that Condoleezza Rice told Bush II, in July 2002, "That [the] decision [to attack Iraq] has been made. Don’t waste your breath," and that in the same month Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former chief of defence intelligence and deputy chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, wrote a confidential memo to MPs to alert them that the "commitment to war" had been made a year before. If they were telling the truth then this shows that the war against Iraq was aggression.
Aggression was not the only crime committed by von Ribbentrop. His other main crime was the planning of the deportation of Jews to death camps. In other words, genocide. The British and Americans may well be responsible for genocide in Iraq as well. Dennis Halliday, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq who resigned in protest against the sanctions on Iraq in 1998, described them as "genocidal".
The convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide describes genocide as "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group". The five methods to achieve this that amount to genocide, according to the convention, include "Killing members of the group" and "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part".
The sanctions against Iraq targeted civilians by blocking a large amount of food to import-dependant Iraq, which resulted in huge rates of malnutrition and the starvation of many Iraqis, especially children, who died in huge numbers. The import of many medicines into Iraq was blocked, which resulted in many Iraqis dying of curable diseases. The sanctions also prevented the cleaning up of Iraq after the first Gulf War, when depleted uranium shells had been fired, and the particles from the shells resulted in extensive levels of cancer, leukemia, deformities and many other diseases for the Iraqi people. In 1998 Ramsey Clark estimated that the sanctions had killed about 1.5 million Iraqis. And there were still 5 more years of sanctions after that.
The sanctions clearly violated the clause of "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part" and even though the politicians in Britain and America knew of the suffering of Iraqis they chose to keep the sanctions going. The sanctions almost certainly amounted to genocidal actions but it is unclear whether or not the intent of the sanctions amounts to genocide. For this we need the cabinet documents relating to the sanctions to be released so we can see the true purpose of the sanctions.
But even if the cabinet documents get released, I doubt there will be a war crimes trial. I doubt it will even get called for, aside from by a few "radicals". The powerful have always been exempt from the long arm of the law.
If they weren’t then the Khmer Rouge trial that is currently going on would also include the Americans who ordered and orchestrated the bombing of neutral Cambodia – the crime of aggression -, which killed approximately 600,000 Cambodians. The trial would also include the British who tried to get the Khmer Rouge back into power, after they were toppled by the Vietnamese. The British, and to a lesser extent the Americans, trained and supporting the Khmer Rouge during the civil war, including in the use of landmines. This was while the Khmer Rouge were still continuing their genocidal policies in the areas that they recaptured. It would also include the American and British politicians who imposed an embargo that blocked food from famine stricken Cambodia, just because the liberators were an enemy of the US.
If the powerful weren’t exempt from justice then the trials for war crimes in Kosovo would have included the NATO leaders and American and British politicians who ordered the bombing of civilians in Serbia. They did this with the full expectation that this would greatly increase Serbian atrocities, which it did as well as killing many innocent Serbs. And where are the trials for aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada, East Timor, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, British Guinea, Malaya (now Malaysia), Kenya and all the other countries subjected to aggression by the US, Britain and their allies?
In this instance looking at the concept of collective guilt seems appropriate. It is up to us to do something about the crimes of our governments. We must be demanding trials for all of the unpunished state crimes as well as actively opposing state crimes that are still going on, such as in Afghanistan and Cuba and the informal imperialism that is orchestrated through the IMF, World Bank and WTO. But even in the unlikely event that we have comprehensive war crimes trials it will be unlikely to prevent similar crimes from happening in the future. When a privileged elite has a monopoly on decision-making in a country it seems inevitable that they will need to commit horrendous crimes in order to maintain their global and national privilege. Britain and America are both run by wealthy elites with the public’s only participation being to choose which elites have the most power. If the people had complete control over the way their countries are run then wars would not be necessary and these horrific crimes would be avoided. Only with a participatory democracy can the crimes of the state be avoided in the future. If we fail to act then we face a heavy burden of guilt.