Robert Fisk: Who is to blame for the collapse in morality that followed
Pillage merits a specific prevention clause in the Geneva Conventions,
just as it did in the 1907 Hague Convention
Independent - April 12, 2003
Let's talk war crimes. Yes, I know about the war crimes of Saddam. He
slaughtered the innocent, gassed the Kurds, tortured his people and –
though it is true we remained good friends with this butcher for more
than half of his horrible career – could be held responsible for killing
up to a million people, the death toll of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. But
while we are congratulating ourselves on the "liberation" of Baghdad, an
event that is fast turning into a nightmare for many of its residents, it
is as good a time as any to recall how we've been conducting this
So let's start with the end – with the Gone With The Wind epic of looting
and anarchy with which the Iraqi population have chosen to celebrate our
gift to them of "liberation" and "democracy". It started in Basra, of
course, with our own shameful British response to the orgy of theft that
took hold of the city. Our defence minister, Geoff Hoon, made some
especially childish remarks about this disgraceful state of affairs,
suggesting in the House of Commons that the people of Basra were merely
"liberating" – that word again – their property from the Baath party. And
the British Army enthusiastically endorsed this nonsense.
Even as tape of the pillage in Basra was being beamed around the world,
there was Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Blackman of the Royal Scots Dragoon
Guards cheerfully telling the BBC that "it' s absolutely not my business
to get in the way." But of course it is Colonel Blackman's business to
"get in the way". Pillage merits a specific prevention clause in the
Geneva Conventions, just as it did in the 1907 Hague Convention upon
which the Geneva delegates based their "rules of war". "Pillage is
prohibited," the 1949 Geneva Conventions say, and Colonel Blackman and Mr
Hoon should glance at Crimes of War, published in conjunction with the
City University Journalism Department – page 276 is the most dramatic –
to understand what this means.
When an occupying power takes over another country' s territory, it
automatically becomes responsible for the protection of its civilians,
their property and institutions. Thus the American troops in Nasiriyah
became automatically responsible for the driver who was murdered for his
car in the first day of that city's "liberation". The Americans in
Baghdad were responsible for the German and Slovak embassies that were
looted by hundreds of Iraqis on Thursday, and for the French Cultural
Centre, which was attacked, and for the Central Bank of Iraq, which was
torched yesterday afternoon.
But the British and Americans have simply discarded this notion, based
though it is upon conventions and international law. And we journalists
have allowed them to do so. We clapped our hands like children when the
Americans "assisted" the Iraqis in bringing down the statue of Saddam
Hussein in front of the television cameras this week, and yet we went on
talking about the "liberation" of Baghdad as if the majority of civilians
there were garlanding the soldiers with flowers instead of queuing with
anxiety at checkpoints and watching the looting of their capital.
We journalists have been co-operating, too, with a further collapse of
morality in this war. Take, for example, the ruthless bombing of the
residential Mansur area of Baghdad last week. The Anglo-American armies –
or the "coalition", as the BBC still stubbornly and mendaciously calls
the invaders – claimed they believed that Saddam and his two evil sons
Qusay and Uday were present there. So they bombed the civilians of Mansur
and killed at least 14 decent, innocent people, almost all of them – and
this would obviously be of interest to the religious feelings of Messrs
Bush and Blair – Christians.
Now one might have expected the BBC World Service Radio next morning to
question whether the bombing of civilians did not constitute a bit of an
immoral act, a war crime perhaps, however much we wanted to kill Saddam.
Forget it. The presenter in London described the slaughter of these
innocent civilians as "a new twist" in the war to target Saddam – as if
it was quite in order to kill civilians, knowingly and in cold blood, in
order to murder our most hated tyrant. The BBC's correspondent in Qatar –
where the Centcom boys pompously boasted that they had "real-time"
intelligence (subsequently proved to be untrue) that Saddam was present –
used all the usual military jargon to justify the unjustifiable. The
"coalition", he announced, knew it had "time-sensitive material" – ie
that they wouldn't have time to know whether they were killing innocent
human beings in the furtherance of their cause or not – and that this
"actionable material" (again I quote this revolting BBC dispatch) was not
And then he went on to describe, without a moment of reflection, on the
moral issues involved, how the Americans had used four 2,000lb
"bunker-buster bombs to level the civilian homes". These are, of course,
the very same pieces of ordnance that the same US air force used in their
vain effort to kill Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains. So now we
use them, knowingly, on the flimsy homes of civilians of Baghdad – folk
who would otherwise be worthy of the "liberation" we wished to bestow
upon them – in the hope that a gamble, a bit of faulty "intelligence"
about Saddam, will pay off.
The Geneva Conventions have a lot to say about all this. They
specifically refer to civilians as protected persons, as persons who must
have the protection of a warring power even if they find themselves in
the presence of armed antagonists. The same protection was demanded for
southern Lebanese civilians when Israel launched its brutal "Grapes of
Wrath" operation in 1996. When an Israeli pilot, for example, fired a
US-made Hellfire missile into an ambulance, killing three children and
two women, the Israelis claimed that a Hezbollah fighter had been in the
same vehicle. The statement proved to be totally untrue. But Israel was
rightly condemned for killing civilians in the hope of killing an enemy
combatant. Now we are doing exactly the same. And Ariel Sharon must be
pleased. No more namby-pamby western criticism of Israel after the
bunker-busters have been dropped on Mansur.
More and more, we are committing these crimes. The mass slaughter of more
than 400 civilians in the Amariyah air raid shelter in Baghdad in the
1991 Gulf War was carried out in the hope that it would kill Saddam. Why?
Why cannot we abide by the rules of war we rightly demand that others
should obey? Why do we journalists – yet again, war after war – connive
in this immorality by turning a ruthless and cruel and illegal act into a
"new twist" or into "time-sensitive material"?
Wars have a habit of turning normally sane people into cheerleaders, of
transforming rational journalists into nasty little puffed-up fantasy
colonels. But surely we should all carry the Geneva Conventions into war
with us, along with that little book from the City University. For the
only people to benefit from our own war crimes will be the next
generation of Saddam Husseins.