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Nuremberg is Valid Precedent for Iraq Trials

César Chelala

The Nuremberg Principles, a set of guidelines established after World War II to try Nazi party members, were developed to determine what constitutes a war crime. The principles could also be applied today, when judging the conditions that led to the Iraq war and in the process to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children, and to the devastation of a country's infrastructure.

In January of 2003, a group of U.S law professors warned President George W. Bush that he and senior officials of his government could be prosecuted for war crimes if military tactics violated international humanitarian law. The group, led by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, sent similar warnings to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Although Washington is not part of the International Criminal Court (ICC), U.S. officials could be prosecuted in other countries under the Geneva Convention, indicated Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ratner likened the situation to the attempted prosecution by a Spanish magistrate, Baltazar Garzón, of the Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was held under house arrest in London.

Both former President George W. Bush and senior officials in his government could be tried for being responsible for torture and other war crimes under the Geneva Conventions. In addition, should Nuremberg principles be followed by an investigating tribunal, former President Bush and other senior officials in his administration could also be tried for violation of fundamental Nuremberg principles. In 2007, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC's chief prosecutor, told The Sunday Telegraph that he could envisage a scenario in which both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then President George W. Bush could face charges at The Hague.

Perhaps one of the most serious breaches of international law by the Bush administration is the doctrine of "preventive war." In the case of the Iraq war, it was carried out without authorization from the U.N. Security Council in violation of the U.N. Charter, which forbids armed aggression and violations of the sovereignty of any state by any other state, except in immediate self-defense.

As stated in the U.S. Constitution, international treaties agreed to by the United States are part of the "supreme law of the land." "Launching a war of aggression is a crime and no political or economic situation can justify it," stated Justice Jackson, the Chief U.S. Nuremberg Tribunal Prosecutor. And Benjamin Ferencz, also a former chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials declared, "a prime facie case can be made that the United States is guilty of the supreme crime against humanity, that being an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation."

The conduct and the consequences of the Iraq war are part of the Crimes against Peace and War crimes stated in Nuremberg Principle VI which defines as crimes against peace, (i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances; (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

In the section on war crimes, Nuremberg Principle VI includes, "...murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property." The criminal abuse of prisoners in U.S. military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo are clear evidence of ill-treatment and even murder of prisoners. According to the organization Human Rights First, at least 100 detainees have died while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global "war on terror," eight of whom were tortured to death.

As for the plunder of public or private property, there is evidence that even before the war started, members of the Bush administration had already drawn plans to privatize and sell Iraqi property, particularly oil.

Although there are obvious hindrances to trying a former US president and his associates, such a trial is fully justified by legal precedents, in particular the Nuremberg Principles, as well as by the extent of human lives lost and the breach of international law it has produced.


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César Chelala

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant, co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.

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