UNITED NATIONS - A multinational coalition of jurists and civil society groups says it is launching an initiative to investigate alleged war crimes in Iraq for potential prosecution by the young International Criminal Court (ICC) or other legal bodies.
The move is motivated in part by Washington's recent declaration that it plans to set up its own tribunal to try alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the nation that it invaded last month, despite widespread calls for an international body that would also examine U.S. conduct in Iraq.
"Lawyers recognize no such principle as 'victors' justice,' the idea that it is just going to be the Iraqis and Saddam Hussein who have to face the consequences of committing war crimes," said Phil Shiner of the Birmingham, U.K.-based group Public Interest Lawyers.
"In this new era where we have an International Criminal Court and the linking of the penal code of the international criminal statute to Geneva Convention provisions, we think it is very important that all parties to conflict respect and comply with those provisions," he told reporters.
Another member said that the coalition would prefer to see a United Nations tribunal investigate and try alleged war crimes, but acknowledged that is unlikely because such a proposal would be vetoed by the U.N. Security Council.
"Is it really realistic that the U.N. is going to appoint a tribunal to look at all these crimes with the U.S. sitting there (on the Security Council) with a veto?" asked Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
"What is very upsetting to us is that the U.S. has said that they will prosecute war crimes but will really be prosecuting only the war crimes, if any, committed by Iraq," he added. "Both sides should have to comply with the Geneva Conventions, but this (U.S.) scenario is essentially a victor's justice."
"We don't know if war crimes have been committed but there are very worrisome aspects that deserve some examination and inquiry," Ratner said.
The U.S. military has been condemned for using weapons such as cluster bombs and depleted uranium in its invasion that have a devastating impact on civilians. It is also accused by human rights groups of targeting known civilian sites and journalists' offices.
The first phase of the coalition's initiative will take place May 24-25 when five international law experts meet in London to establish the criteria for determining what constitutes "war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression."
An estimated three months later, the tribunal will sit again in Rome to decide if significant evidence exists that war crimes were committed in Iraq. The group would then move to present the evidence to the ICC or another global legal body.
One large obstacle to an ICC prosecution is the fact that Washington is not a party to the treaty that created the body earlier this year, so is not under its jurisdiction. But the United Kingdom is a party to the Rome Statute, so a case could be brought against it for committing war crimes if evidence exists, Shiner explained, even by a "non-State."
"In terms of practicality, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the ICC Prosecutor couldn't take our report if there were a report that war crimes had been committed and evidence that we would present and take that as a starting point for an investigation."
Ratner suggested a case could be made that the U.S. military should be subject to ICC jurisdiction because U.S. bombers took off from British soil in many cases, but the coalition acknowledged that that is a controversial viewpoint.
The group, which also has members in Canada, Australia and Italy, stressed that the U.S.-led invasion did violate global laws.
"The international laws that we are talking about are the most basic standards of justice agreed to after World War II, that is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Charter, and the Geneva Conventions," said Richard Normand, executive director of the U.S.-based group Center for Economic and Social Rights.
"These three major bodies of law represented a coming together of public morality and international law. So the notion that the United States has been arguing recently, which is that international law doesn't matter because we can choose what is moral to do in this country or that country, essentially opens the field for anyone."
Citing recent remarks by the Indian prime minister, who claimed that India has a legitimate right to use the U.S. "Iraq doctrine" against Pakistan, Normand suggested that a dangerous precedent is being set, which could also be employed by Israeli forces in Palestine and in future conflicts worldwide.
© 2003 IPS