Months after United States troops invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, Mazar-i-Sharif earned the notoriety as the city of torture and extrajudicial killings, quite at variance with its worldwide fame as the city of Islamic and Hellenic architectural glory.
It was also as paradoxical as it is shocking, for at the centre of the torture allegations was the United States, a country which till the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington DC had been seen to be championing human rights and democracy worldwide.
At the Mazar-i-Sharif prison, it is alleged that hundreds of detainees were subjected to severe forms of torture. Many died there or were taken to the nearby desert and killed. ‘Massacre at Mazar’ was a name of a documentary Scots film producer Jamie Doran made. It was shown in the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin and the European parliament in Strasbourg in July 2002. What the documentary had exposed was corroborated by a report the US Human Rights Group, Physicians for Human Rights, had released the same year. (https://www.scotsman.com/news/world/us-had-role-in-taleban-prisoner-deaths-1-609624).
The then US government advocated a culture of impunity, supporting even forms of torture such as waterboarding to elicit information from terror suspects, while a majority of US citizens, not in a proper state of mind after the shock of the 9/11, remained silent. Their silence was licence for the George W. Bush administration to commit human rights violations in total disregard for international humanitarian laws and laws on warfare.
The ugly truth behind the US-led war on terror is that the US has committed war crimes and the US will not allow an international tribunal or another nation to bring US war crime suspects to justice. Now whatever the faults of the US, since World War II ended, the rest of the world looked to it for global leadership.
If leadership implies followership, the example the US sets with regard to the issue of war crimes only gives rise to a dangerous trend. Already, with a maverick president in the White House, the international order is fast hurtling towards chaos because of US misbehavior.
In yet another outlandish move, on Monday, the White House National Security Advisor, John Bolton, sounded like a bully to warn International Criminal Court judges, prosecutors and investigators that they would face sanctions and even arrest, if the world court took action to prosecute US soldiers for alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan.
Bolton, a neoconservative hawk, said to be one of the architects of the United States’ illegal invasion of Iraq, has many a time in the past spoken contemptuously about international diplomacy which he has slammed as an affront to the US sovereignty. He once infamously said if the United Nations building in New York “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Such was his scorn for the UN, though President Bush appointed him as the US ambassador to the UN.
Bolton’s full-scale attack on the ICC is not surprising. That his remarks had the backing of President Trump, who is equally contemptuous about international systems, is also not surprising. After all, Trump, claiming that climate change was a hoax invented by China, had withdrawn the US from the Paris climate deal, the United Nations Human Rights Council and has threatened to end the US membership in the World Trade Organisation.
The ICC was set up in 2002 after years of negotiations in Rome and elsewhere. The talks were held at a time when a new world order was emerging after the end of the Cold War. It was a period, when the sole superpower, the US, had been urged to play its global leadership role responsibly -- and more significantly, it was a period when consensus was being built up for an international world order based on respect for and strict adherence to human rights. This was because the international community was feeling guilty of not taking effective action to stop genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Giving leadership to this campaign was the European Union -- with the US wavering, its eyes wide opened and mind fully occupied with the possible consequences if the Rome Statue was to become a reality, especially with regard to its military plans.
Though the Bill Clinton administration was somewhat agreeable to the Rome process in principle, the Bush administration, hell bent on launching the neoconservative-scripted wars on nations, was totally opposed to the idea of setting up an international court to try war crimes. The Congress hurriedly passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act to undermine the universal jurisdiction of the ICC. Washington also began signing bilateral agreements with other nations, preventing them from taking American soldiers to the ICC or trying them for war crimes in domestic courts.
Even before the 9/11, the US had not been a great respecter of international humanitarian laws or world court judgments. Should we remind ourselves of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the use of Agent Orange chemical weapons in Viet Nam and the use of cancer-causing depleted uranium in Fallujah, Iraq? In 1984, the US refused to obey an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling which found Washington guilty of placing sea mines in Nicaragua’s waters. Then in 2003, it invaded Iraq in what was later described by the then United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan as an illegal war.
On the one hand, alarmed by what it sees as China’s aggressive behaviour or assertive diplomacy with regard to disputed islands in the South China Sea, the US calls for a ruled-based word order. But on the other hand, feeling no compunction, it flouts international norms and shakes the foundation of international law, painstakingly wrought through decades or centuries by nations which wished to solve disputes through diplomacy rather than bloodshed. Such double standards indicate that rules are only for less powerful nations, while big powers can do whatever they think is right or wrong to further their national interests.
Some may justify such duplicity as part of power politics. But they need to realise that it will only lead to an anarchical global order, where human rights violations and war crimes will be non-issues, with Hitlerite dictators having a field day.
While, under Trump, the US has squandered its moral right to the mantle of global leadership, China which is gradually replacing the US as the number one world power, is not interested in promoting human rights or democracy. Perhaps, the only silver lining is the EU, but its outreach is limited. Need we say more about the evolving world order? The sooner the Americans unseat Trump the better it is not only for them, but also for the rest of the world.