The labelling of New Labour ministers, such as Jack Straw, as war criminals has been a vogue that continues to manifest itself in the opinions of anti-war campaigners, old lefties and any others of the political creed that look back with derision on the government of Tony Blair. Due to the strength of such accusations, such assertions of criminality must be rebutted and exposed as displaying a deficiency in understanding of international law and of what a war criminal actually is.
Straw’s accusers mostly point to the legal basis on which the law was justified by the UK government – the shaky evidence of a WMD programme, the procrustean use of UN resolutions, the UK’s failure to uphold its obligations to the Iraqi population – as a basis for labelling him and his ilk as war criminals.
What Straw’s accusers fail to understand is that these questions of legality so regularly aired pertain to relationships between States and to their obligations and do not apply to individual people. If it were shown that the UK contravened UN resolutions and went to war in Iraq illegally, or if it were shown that the UK failed in its obligations toward the Iraqi people after invasion, it would merely entail that the UK, as a State, would incur responsibility for failing in its obligations. This implies nothing in regards to the criminality of those who form the State’s government.
A war crime, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Statute of the International Criminal Court is a serious violation of international humanitarian law. This includes acts which constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 such as wilful killing, torture, taking hostages, or depriving prisoners of war their rights to a fair trial. Criminal acts may also include intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population which are not taking part in hostilities or against civilian objects which are not military objectives. In accordance with the Rome Statute, one may also be found criminally responsible for ‘intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.’
Barring an as yet unseen extraordinary revelation, Jack Straw certainly did not carry out these acts in person and so any criminal prosecution would rest on his actions qualifying as the other modes of participation as laid out under Article 25 of the Rome Statute. These consist of ordering, soliciting or inducing the commission of such acts, aiding, abetting or otherwise assisting in their commission or in any other way contributing to the commission or attempted commission of such a crime by a group of persons acting with a common purpose. Take note, these acts are distinct from ordering, soliciting or inducing a war.
Those who label Straw as a war criminal need to understand what they are accusing the man of. They accuse Straw of, at best, assisting in the manufacture of a war in full knowledge that British soldiers would commit acts such as torture, rape, the taking of hostages, purposely attacking or forcibly transferring civilians, or wreaking wanton destruction of property. At worst, they accuse Straw of soliciting a war with the aim and purpose that such crimes would be committed.
It is clear, once understanding what a war crime actually constitutes, that it would be extremely difficult to prosecute a person such as Straw for such acts. The basis of ‘war criminal’ accusations would have to rest on Jack Straw conspiring to take the UK to war with Iraq for the purposes of committing a war crime, a strong and farfetched accusation indeed.
Briefly, but most importantly, there is still one very important issue that those who subscribe to the UN ideology should consider before labelling Straw a war criminal; that he has never been found guilty of war crimes by a court of law. Straw is yet to be even prosecuted for war crimes and so labelling him a war criminal is incompatible with the international fair trial standards that form an important part of the UN human rights agenda.
Benjamin F. Owen