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Torture & the Crime of Aggressive War

The U.S. government's torture of detainees in the "war on terror" can be traced directly to a Feb. 7, 2002, memo signed by President George W. Bush.

This was conclusion #1 of the recently released final report of the Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody.   Thanks primarily to this document, debate concerning one of the most shameful aspects of the "war on terror" has entered the mainstream debate after years on the edges of public discourse. [For more on the report, see's "Torture Trail Seen Starting with Bush."]

Torture, however, is only one of the crimes associated with the "war on terror." A few prominent examples of other crimes waiting to be "sourced" are:

Extraordinary rendition, illegal detention, loss of habeas corpus, abuse and murder of civilians in Iraq and elsewhere, and the creation of millions of impoverished refugees.

With these crimes, the need to find the origin is every bit as imperative as with torture. But we don't need to ask the Senate Armed Services Committee to initiate 18-month investigations for each of these as well.

The question of responsibility for these and all other war crimes, including torture, was answered over 60 years ago at Nuremberg when high-ranking Nazis were brought to account for their atrocities in World War II.

On Sept. 30, 1946, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, president of the International Military Tribunal, read the judgment of the first Nuremberg trial, which included these memorable words:

"To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

Torture, rendition, loss of liberties, unnecessary death and destruction are just some of the trees. Aggression is the forest.

And there can be no doubt that President George W. Bush and members of his inner circle have committed "the supreme international crime."

The invasion of Iraq is the clearest example of American aggression associated with the "war on terror." The invasion - launched on March 19, 2003 - violated the Nuremberg Charter (Article VI(a)), as well as  the United Nations Charter (Article 2, Sec. 4 and Article 39) and U.N. Security Council Resolution #1441.

In addition, since "Operation Iraqi Freedom" violated both the Nuremberg Charter and the U.N. Charter - treaties signed and ratified by the U.S. government - the invasion also violated Article VI, Clause 2 (the Supremacy Clause) of the U.S. Constitution.

To many Americans -- and to the great majority of the rest of humanity -- it couldn't be more clear: starting an unprovoked war is an outrage, both legally and morally.

It is nothing short of mass murder. It cries out for prosecution, for justice, for accountability -- no matter how powerful the aggressors are.

With the Senate Armed Services Committee report, we have taken the first steps towards assigning responsibility for torture.

However if we ignore or marginalize the more fundamental crime of aggression, we risk accepting the unfortunate contemporary American assumption that aggressive war is a legitimate and useful tool of foreign policy - when employed by the U.S. President.

Until this assumption is unequivocally banished, it is likely that future U.S. administrations will repeat this "supreme" crime, further ensuring that torture and other war crimes which flow from aggression will be repeated as well.

It's good that the debate on accountability for torture finally has entered the mainstream. But the principles of accountability and rule of law do not end with a Senate committee report.   We should be discussing the possibility of arresting and prosecuting George W. Bush and all others responsible for the unprovoked invasion of Iraq.

The search for the source of war crimes should be followed to its logical conclusion. It's time we saw the forest as well as the trees.

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Peter Dyer

Peter Dyer is a freelance journalist who moved with his wife from California to New Zealand in 2004. He can be reached at .

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