Dangers of Discretion

Alex de Waal

  • Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross by Caroline Moorehead
    HarperCollins, 780 pp, £24.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 00 255141 1
  • The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff
    Chatto, 207 pp, £10.99, February 1998, ISBN 0 7011 6324 0

Over a century ago, Gustave Moynier, a stocky middle-aged Genevan lawyer, author and philanthropist, proposed an international court to enforce respect for the Geneva Convention. Moynier was the second president of the Red Cross, a man whose dedication turned the flamboyant Henri Dunant’s vision into an institutional reality. Dunant, a journalist and entrepreneur, documented the agonies of the wounded soldiers left to die in the fields and vineyards of Solferino after the battle of 24 June 1859, and went on to propose both a corps of volunteers to treat the casualties and a set of ‘international principles, conventional and sacred’, to enjoin armies to respect these volunteers. The ambitions of the two men were too large to fit within the confines of a single institution. Disgraced by bankruptcy, Dunant resigned from the Red Cross to live in seclusion, until he was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. This infuriated the self-righteous Moynier, who in the latter part of his 46-year stint as president, tried hard to expunge any mention of Dunant from the organisation’s records. Such contradictions are the stuff of the Red Cross, whose ‘International Committee’ was, until recently, drawn from a very small circle within the Protestant haute bourgeoisie of Geneva. Much of Caroline Moorehead’s immense chronicle is about the individuals – some extraordinarily courageous and eccentric, a few disastrously timid – who established ‘a movement which has no equal in size or commitment outside of organised religion’.

The Red Cross declared its commitment to neutrality and its readiness to appeal to the belligerents’ sense of humanity, whoever they were, during the negotiation of the first Geneva Convention in 1864. It was concerned neither with pacificism (though the morality of making war more tolerable has been a recurring theme in the organisation’s debates) nor with legislating for human rights. At that time, Moynier opposed the idea of an international tribunal to judge those who failed to comply with the Geneva Convention, arguing that the pressure of public opinion would be sufficient. But the intoxicating nationalisms of the Franco-Prussian War showed the limits of any ‘purely moral force’ such as the Geneva Conventions or the Red Cross. On both sides, public opinion supported – and arguably encouraged – atrocities. By January 1872, Moynier had changed his mind, and presented his plan for a court.

It was not until last June that a diplomatic conference met in Rome to negotiate the setting up of an International Criminal Court to try war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Court, to be based in The Hague, will have an independent prosecutor empowered to bring charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It is the most significant advance in international humanitarian law for half a century (were the Law Lords to uphold their earlier decision to extradite General Pinochet, this would be a further sign of progress). But the US Government has refused to countenance the possibility of its soldiers or their civilian masters facing indictment by a non-American court. The Libyans and Iraqis, among others, will take note of this precedent, which is not the only problem that the Hague Court will face.

Consider the case of Belgium, which in June 1993 delighted humanitarian lawyers across the world by adopting the most far-reaching statute on war crimes of any country, giving its courts worldwide jurisdiction to try any individuals – whether Belgian citizens or not – for ‘grave breaches’ of international humanitarian law, committed either in inter-state or civil wars. At that very moment, Belgian troops serving with the United Nations in Somalia were committing routine brutalities against the local civilian population. Just three weeks earlier, paratroopers had shot and killed an unarmed Red Cross carpenter as he was leaving a mosque. When evidence of torture and killing first emerged, the Belgian Army and Government vigorously denied any wrongdoing and mounted an internal investigation that was little more than a whitewash. Four years later, despite the publication of photographs showing paratroopers holding a Somali boy over a brazier, and persistent lobbying by Belgian anti-racist groups, barely a handful of cases have come to court. The judges have been obliged to dismiss many of the charges because the victims’ bodies have not been identified. When two soldiers who admitted holding the boy over the fire claimed that it was only a game, their testimony was reluctantly accepted by the Court because the boy could not come forward to testify. Belgium’s war crimes legislation merely broadens the jurisdiction of its courts: it does not alter rules of evidence to make convictions in such cases any easier.

At exactly the same time, the US Army was fighting a very bloody war in Mogadishu against the militia of General Mohamed Farah Aidid. Publicly, the US Government claims that its objection to the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court has to do with its fear that American peacekeepers would be vulnerable to malicious prosecutions by discontented Somalis, Serbs and others. In fact, American fears go rather deeper, and explain why the US Government did its best to sabotage the prospect of a truly effective court. The abuses against Somalis committed by the Belgian paratroopers – along with Canadians, Italians, Malaysians and others – were largely the result of individual soldiers getting out of control, and the readiness of their senior officers to turn a blind eye or even to cover up for them. Violations by the US forces were a different matter. The US military doctrines of overwhelming force and minimal – preferably zero – American casualties dictated that the US fought the Mogadishu war from the air and from heavily defended ground positions, using massively destructive weaponry. In the course of a single battle on 3 October 1993, in which 18 American soldiers died and one was captured, US helicopters fired off no fewer than 50,000 Alpha 165 and 63 rockets. City blocks were flattened and crowds cut down by gunfire. In an earlier incident (one of several), on 12 June, US helicopters fired a dozen anti-tank missiles into a house and killed at least fifty clan elders and other politicians. It was not a mistake. ‘We knew what we were hitting. It was well-planned,’ said Admiral Jonathan Howe, the American officer in charge of the UN operation. One of Howe’s legal advisers immediately questioned whether the attack had breached the Geneva Conventions. Almost certainly, it had.

Unlike the Belgians and Canadians, the US has held no public inquiry into the actions of its troops in Somalia. The reason is simple: orders for helicopter attacks came from higher authorities than the force commander in Mogadishu – they came from Centcom HQ in Florida and the White House itself. The charge sheet for any inquiry into Mogadishu war crimes might contain the names of some very high-ranking American individuals.

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[*] Bison, 579 pp., £23.95, 1996, 0 8032 6366 x.