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Who decides if it's a war crime?

by Kevin Ovenden

'We are The War Criminals Now.' That was the headline in both the Independent and Mirror last week above a powerful article by veteran correspondent Robert Fisk. It was one of a string of pieces that described the horror of the capture of a prison near Mazar-e-Sharif by the Northern Alliance, the US and Britain's ally in Afghanistan.

Over 300 Taliban prisoners were killed. Some were killed by US bombing. Many more were shot at close range while their hands were still tied behind their backs. Charity workers and journalists on the ground are in no doubt that what happened at Qalai Janghi fort was an appalling massacre, triggered when Taliban prisoners feared they were going to be taken out and executed.

They had good reason to fear that. The Northern Alliance capture of Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan, brought the systematic slaughter of foreign-born Taliban troops. So did the fall of the southern town of Takteh Pol. Local Mujahadeen commander Gul Agha is represented in the talks on a new regime in Afghanistan. One of his commanders said:

'We executed around 160 Taliban that were captured. They were made to stand in a long line, and five or six of our fighters used light machine-guns on them.'

US special forces looked on as the massacre unfolded. The executions across Afghanistan bear a hideous similarity to the killings in Bosnia and Kosovo during the wars that attended the break up of Yugoslavia. The West then, of course, took an entirely different attitude to atrocities committed by Serb forces than it takes today over the behaviour of its allies in Afghanistan.

The massacre of 45 Albanians in the Kosovan village of Racak in January 1999 was declared a 'war crime' by US envoy to the Balkans William Casey. Racak was cited as a pretext for NATO's 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia. The murder of thousands of men in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995 was held up in the West as an example of 'Serb evil'. Journalists documented how paramilitaries separated Bosnian Muslim men from women and led them off to be killed.

That is exactly what Northern Alliance militias are doing to men they suspect of being sympathetic to the Taliban in Afghanistan today. The US and British governments have tried to claim that the killings are merely a product of 'Afghan bloodlust', and that they carry no responsibility for them. But the chaos and killing that is now engulfing Afghanistan would not be taking place were it not for US and British military action.

Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic is now charged in the Western-established Hague tribunal with responsibility for 'genocide in Bosnia'. He is held indirectly responsible for the massacres carried out by forces he was supporting but not directly commanding.

Milosevic has no doubt noted the supposed justification for the Mazar-e-Sharif killings put forward by Foreign Office minister Peter Hain. He told Radio 5 Live last week, 'These things happen in war. Nasty things happen in war.'

The truth is that the US and British states are guilty of war crimes along with many of their allies, such as Israel's Ariel Sharon. An inquiry in Belgium is uncovering yet more evidence of the involvement of Sharon and the forces he led in the massacre of over 2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla camps in Beirut in Lebanon in 1982.

None of these people are going to be hauled up for war crimes. For amid the nauseating hypocrisy of official talk of 'war crimes', one truth stands out.

War crimes are what the enemies of the imperialist powers do. Our rulers' actions are, or course, 'proportionate responses' to 'defend civilisation'.


Article information

What Socialists Say
Sat 8 Dec 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1778
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