Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is spearheading an international initiative to launch a tough, new war crimes tribunal styled on the Nuremberg trials established after the Second World War when senior Nazis and their minions were brought to justice. Brown is keen to see Russian President Vladimir Putin held to account for the atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians since the invasion and war launched by Moscow last month. Joining Brown in his “Nuremberg” call is another former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, along with 140 academics, lawyers and other politicians.
The move is being made because the International Criminal Court is unlikely to investigate Putin for war crimes because it will need a referral from the UN Security Council. As one of the council’s permanent members, Russia is bound to use its veto to stop the action.
While such an initiative should be welcomed there are many —myself among them — who ask openly why Brown feels compelled to condemn Putin’s “use of force”, but looks the other way when Israel commits war crimes and stands accused of conducting crimes against humanity in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories. Such accusations are numerous and varied.
If Putin’s armed forces in Ukraine are bombing schools, hospitals and places of worship, then they are doing nothing more than what Israel has been doing in the Gaza Strip over many years. Indeed, since 2008/9, the absurdly-named Israel “Defence” Forces have waged four major military offensives against Palestinian civilians in the tiny coastal enclave. Gaza, remember, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
I was in Gaza after Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” carried out between December 2008 and late January 2009, and walked through the rubble listening to Palestinians talk about the war crimes inflicted upon them, including the use of chemical weapons. The evidence of aerial bombardments directed at hospitals, schools and mosques was overwhelming. Given that the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, has no air force, it didn’t take a genius to work out who was responsible for targeting civilians with a frightening array of missiles, bombs and illegally used white phosphorus.
Journalists were just a matter of metres away when they saw four Palestinian children playing on a Gaza beach in 2014 targeted and killed by Israel. It emerged later that Ismail Bakr, 9, Ahed Bakr, 10, Zakaria Bakr, also 10, and Mohammed Bakr, 11, were killed in a drone attack; the boys were cousins. Palestinian medics attending protest rallies have also been deliberately targeted by snipers. On 1 June 2018, during the Great March of Return Protests in Gaza, 20-year-old volunteer Razan Al-Najjar, for example, was shot dead while treating the wounded. She was wearing a clearly identifiable medic’s uniform at the time.
In April 2002, around 55 Palestinian men, women and children were killed when Israeli troops besieged the Jenin refugee camp. The list of Israel’s crimes goes on even though such crimes take place in full view of the world’s media. Moreover, it is simply never mentioned that Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are not only illegal under international law, but are also war crimes in themselves; as is the transfer of Israeli citizens to live in the settlements. However, attempts to hold Israel to account for war crimes are always blocked by the US, with Britain on hand to provide Washington with back up if necessary.
For every atrocity in Ukraine committed by Putin’s inept military, countless more have been committed by the Israelis against the people of occupied Palestine. Israel receives $3 billion in military aid from the US every year. US ammunition stored in the apartheid state is available to Israel should the need arise. Apartheid itself is a crime akin to a crime against humanity.
So while I am ready to applaud Brown’s initiative, I don’t think it goes far enough. There are a whole host of Israeli politicians and generals who should be in the dock alongside Putin, along with the American, British and European leaders who have aided and abetted the occupation state over the years, including Brown and Major themselves.The ICC should be kept busy with Israel and its accomplices, but there are others who wait in the wings for their appointment with justice: step forward the butcher of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who has the blood of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi on his hands. Hundreds of political prisoners are being held in Saudi prisons denied the right to a fair trial. Eighty-one of them were executed in a single day a couple of weeks ago; three more were beheaded just as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Riyadh to meet with Bin Salman to discuss oil supplies. Britain continues to sell arms to the Kingdom, which is embroiled in the war in Yemen and also faces accusations of war crimes following the bombings of weddings, hospitals and even a school bus. Why do Brown and his friends ignore this?
China’s leadership stands accused of genocide against its Uyghur population, while India’s persecution of Kashmiris and Muslims has prompted experts to warn of an impending genocide there. The generals leading the military in Myanmar, as well as the former de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is herself a political prisoner these days, are all accused of the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in former Burma.
And if justice really is to mean justice, then we also need to see some former US presidents and generals in the dock for the illegal 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the deliberate killing of journalists there, and the blowing up of hospitals, wedding parties and media offices in Afghanistan. To the charges must be added the documented use of torture in Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and other US detention facilities.
One notable absentee from this list is Brown’s Labour colleague and predecessor as Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who is often accused of being a war criminal for his role in the invasion of Iraq. When it was announced that he was to receive a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, more than a million people signed a petition condemning the award.
“If the message is not sent out now [about bringing war criminals to justice],” Brown told the BBC, “then we face aggression in other countries which may go unpunished as well.” When he was asked if he thought Putin was guilty of war crimes he replied: “That’s what [US] President Biden said, and that’s my view.”
The Russian president, he insisted, must “face the full force” of international law. “At Nuremberg,” he wrote in the Daily Mail, “we held the Nazi war criminals to account. Eight decades on, we must ensure there will be a day of reckoning for Putin.”
Why, though, is Brown being so selective? Justice, if it is to count for anything, should be delivered in equal measure to our friends as well as our enemies, including Israel, including the US, including the Saudis and — better pack an overnight bag, Mr Brown — including British prime ministers. Charge Putin with war crimes by all means, but why stop at the Kremlin?