When is a war crime not a war crime?
When it is devised and defended by whiter-than-white Clare Short rather than by evil Israel or George W Bush.
Three cheers for Clare Short! Whether she is opposing bloodshed or starvation, no cause is too great for the independent member of parliament for Birmingham Ladywood in England. She has taken a stand against poverty in Africa, she has been opposed to the Iraq War since 2003 (after initially voting for it in the House of Commons), and now, following the recent war in Gaza, she is speaking out against the military behemoth that is Israel.
‘In the Israel/Palestine conflict’, Short wrote last month, ‘we are seeing a terrible undermining of… the principle that armies should adhere to minimum standards of humane behaviour, even during the heat of battle’. Her ire inflamed, she proceeded to reel off the horrors of the Israeli attacks. She wrote about how the Israel Defense Forces commandeered Palestinian homes as operations points, in effect using their inhabitants as human shields; about the use of white phosphorous shells, ‘a clear war crime… exposing civilians to horrendous deep-burn injuries’ that have ‘shocked and bewildered’ doctors in Gaza’s hospitals; and about ‘the colossal destruction’ of Gaza’s infrastructure.
For Short, however, by far the biggest casualty of the Gaza conflict is the integrity of international law. ‘By failing to uphold [the Geneva convention] in the occupied territories, our governments are undermining the whole structure of international law… The UN security council shouldn’t turn a blind eye to wanton destruction and war crimes’, she insisted (1).
Short’s determination to look ‘wanton destruction’ and ‘war crimes’ squarely in the eye will be seen by some as characteristically heroic. In truth it is characteristically disingenuous. Short by name, short in memory.
Ten years ago, as secretary of state for international development, Short was part of the UK Labour government that joined US President Bill Clinton’s administration in leading NATO’s war over Kosovo. Hailed as a ‘humanitarian war’, it had tragically human consequences: on 23 April 1999, for instance, the Clinton/Blair coalition sent cruise missiles to destroy the headquarters of Radio Television Serbia in Belgrade. Of the 120 people working in the building at the time, 16 were killed and 16 injured. ‘I saw the body of a make-up artist… lying in a dressing room’, reported the BBC’s John Simpson. So badly disfigured was 27-year-old Yelitsa Munitak that it was only her wedding ring that revealed her identity. She had been incinerated, but by legal missiles rather than illegal white phosphorous.
Surely Short was outraged? Surely her compassion for these all-too-civilian recipients of the peacekeeping bombs led her to denounce the so-called humanitarian war as inhuman? No. Short was not about to denounce a war for which she was the most vocal cheerleader, even outdoing Blair in her insistence that the military campaign was a ‘test’ for ‘our generation’. In response to those (very) few who wondered why sound editors, cameramen and make-up artists had been slaughtered, Short was bullishly pragmatic: ‘This is a war, this is a serious conflict, untold horrors are being done. The propaganda machine is prolonging the war and it’s a legitimate target.’ In Gaza, civilians are illegitimate targets; in Belgrade they’re fair game.
NATO subsequently claimed that it had meant to target the TV transmitter next door to the RTS studios. In its final report on the conflict over Kosovo, however, the UN stated unequivocally that NATO intended to destroy RTS, not the TV transmitter. Amnesty International went further and called the attack by its legal name: ‘Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.’
While Short poses now as a principled anti-war warrior, during the Kosovo War she was a first-class warmongering zealot. Her stony-faced hypocrisy is startling. But more shocking still is her opportunistic use of ‘international law’. She invokes such laws to condemn Israel today, yet her beloved Kosovo campaign also did not win the backing of the UN security council and also broke numerous statutes on avoiding civilian targets. In Short’s world, ‘legitimacy’ is most definitely in the eyes of the most righteous, and therefore most deluded, of beholders.
So when, exactly, is a premeditated attack on civilians legitimate and when is it not? When does an act of war become a war crime? It all depends, it seems, on who is pressing the buttons and sending the missiles. The moral wreckage of Short’s cynical pragmatism – where she can, without shame, denounce Israel for doing what her government did 10 years ago: target civilians – demonstrates that war only becomes a war crime in specific circumstances. And it shows how accusations of ‘war crimes’ have become a political tool, to be wielded by Western observers who want to prove their moral credibility in contrast to ‘rogue states’ such as Israel. Even if those Western observers are standing on the rubble and wreckage of their own earlier war crimes.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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