December 6, 2023


Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
War crimes
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          WASHINGTON — The war in Ukraine continues to take its toll on both sides with no end yet in sight, so it was a surprise when Attorney General Merrick Garland turned up in war-torn Ukraine to stand with the Prosecutor General to bolster the country’s efforts to identify and prosecute war criminals.
          Normally that process would start when the war is over, but Garland is highlighting it now as part of the international Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group for Ukraine launched last month with the European Union and the U.K.
          For Garland, this is personal. His grandparents fled antisemitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, and he cites as a role model one of his predecessors, Robert Jackson, who was FDR’s attorney general and went on to prosecute Nazi war criminals.
          Garland is creating a war crimes accountability team at the Department of Justice that he says will “pursue every avenue available to make sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable.”
          There is already ample evidence that the Russians are not abiding by the Geneva Conventions. They are using cluster bombs that have been banned. They engage in summary executions of people often with their hands tied behind their backs. Mass graves tell the grim story.
          They are blatantly ignoring the Geneva Conventions, which shouldn’t be a surprise. The Russian Army is known for its disregard for the rules of war. They lack an NCO corps, non-commissioned officers who provide military discipline over young men still teenagers who may see war as a license to run wild.
          By setting up an apparatus to identify war crimes while the conflict is still ongoing, Ukraine with the backing of the international committee is letting Russia know they can’t just blame the troops when the orders are coming from on high. The chain of command will be held accountable.
          The Nuremberg trials that followed the end of World War II are the most vivid example of society’s reckoning with war crimes. Another more recent example is the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia that finally prompted NATO and the Clinton administration to intervene. Thousands of Muslim men were murdered by the Bosnian Serb Army, many brought to a soccer stadium in Srebrenica for the mass killings.
          Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was indicted on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was established by the U.N. Security Council in 1993. Four years into his trial, in 2006, Milosevic was found dead in his prison cell from a heart attack. The testimony against him was ample and chilling and provides a precedent to what could unfold in Ukraine.
          Still, however satisfying it might be to imagine Russian President Putin in the docket having to answer for what he perpetrated in Ukraine, we are nowhere near that kind of accountability.
          In fact, it is possible, even probable, that Putin will instigate war crime tribunals to try Ukrainians. Already, he is claiming that American volunteers fighting for Ukraine are mercenaries not covered by the Geneva Conventions and subject to execution.
          Such a rationalization will only add another sorry dimension to this unprovoked war, this irrational tragedy.
          See Eleanor Clift’s latest book Selecting a President, and Douglas Cohn’s latest books The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2022 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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