Moral decency and crimes against humanity

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that politicians publish their memoirs in order to justify their sins. Sometimes they regret having been misled by others. Occasionally they admit to error. But, for the most heinous acts, they never, ever apologise .

George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld have all refused to make a public apology for the ruination visited upon Iraq. The closest they have come is to express sorrow for loss of life among their own country’s military. Bush, Blair, and Rumsfeld have published memoirs in which they whitewash their complicity. Cheney is currently writing his version.

A culture of impunity has long tainted Western politics. On the one hand it is proper to bring to heel “rogue states” and their dictators, on the other it is improper to accuse one’s own leaders, let alone to impeach them for wrongdoing. The amended Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Through Action to Combat Impunity, submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on 8 February 2005, defines impunity as:

“The impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account – whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings – since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims.”

In relation to violations perpetrated on Iraq, one NGO is counting the civilian deaths that have resulted from military intervention. The public database of Iraq Body Count (IBC) records deaths caused by US-led coalition forces and paramilitary or criminal attacks by others. IBC’s evidence is drawn from crosschecked media reports of events leading to the death of civilians, or of bodies being found, and is supplemented by the careful review and integration of hospital, morgue, civil society, and official figures.

According to information published on IBC’s web site on 23 October 2010, since 2003 more than 155,000 people have been killed in the Iraq war and 80% of those killed were civilians:

“The Iraq War Logs record deaths of all types, including combatant deaths that fall outside the scope of IBC’s civilian deaths database. This means that they can also contribute to a broader accounting of the total number of persons killed in the war, civilian and combatant alike.”

Is what happened in Iraq a crime against humanity? The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum (2005) defines such crimes as:

“Particularly odious offences that constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy… or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority.”

It seems obvious that this definition covers the military devastation of Iraq and its consequences. Should the people directly responsible for what has happened – at the very least – offer a public apology? Would it hurt the political interests of an otherwise great nation like the U.S.A. to be seen to have remorse for the horrendous damage done? Barbara Kellerman, James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, recently drew up A Framework for Apologies. Trying to answer her questions honestly, rather than cynically, provides an insight into why politicians try to evade their moral duty:

What function would a public apology serve?
•    Are you or your organization right? If so, could extending an apology serve your interests anyway?
•    Are you or your organization wrong? If so, could extending an apology get you out of a tough situation?
Who would benefit from an apology?
•    You personally?
•    Your organization more generally?
•    Other individuals and institutions you relate to?
Why would an apology matter?
•    For strategic reasons?
•    For moral reasons?
What happens if you apologize publicly?
•    Will an apology placate the injured parties and hasten the resolution?
•    Will an apology incite the opposition?
•    Will an apology affect your legal jeopardy?
What happens if you don’t apologize?
•    Is time on your side—will the problem likely fade?
•    Will your refusal to apologize (or your refusal to do so promptly) make a bad situation worse?

In Britain, journalist George Monbiot has started a campaign to arrest Blair for crimes against peace. In the U.S.A., the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights is tracking Bush in an attempt to serve a warrant for having authorized torture. Lawyer Katherine Gallagher said, “Torturers, even if they are former presidents of the United States, must be held to account and prosecuted.”

It is highly unlikely that Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld, or Cheney will ever be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. It is at least conceivable that they might be prosecuted for lesser crimes. But we should still insist that they have the moral decency to make a public apology for the havoc wreaked upon the lives of innocent men, women, and children.

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