There are calls by some sections of the anti-war movement for Bush and Blair to face trial for ‘war crimes’ and the Guardian today has a piece by Richard Overy which claims “there is a strong war crimes case against US and British leaders”. Is there really? Is there such a conspiracy of silence among the global media that we haven’t been informed of these crimes?
War crimes are defined according to the Geneva Conventions – deaths which result from normal combat can be sad, regrettable and many other things but they are not necessarily war crimes. Overy’s article seems to rest purely on the assumption that the war is ‘illegal’, (which is itself very debatable) as grounds for prosecution. He gives no specific incidents where the Convention has been breached other than the fact that images of Iraqi POW’s were seen on television.
The broader danger with such calls is not that US or UK leaders might face trail in the future, because if there is reasonable grounds for prosecution then they certainly should face justice. The danger for the future is that the phrase ‘war crimes’ becomes devalued and useless. Indeed the fact that such apparently groundless claims are being banded around suggests that, for some at least, the term has already taken on a new meaning.
Have for example, US-UK troops executed Iraqi prisoners of war? Have they carried out rape and torture? Have they carried out chemical or medical experiments on the civilian population? There have been no reports to suggest they have.
The term weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has also been a victim of the war debates. The most widely accepted defintion of the phrase is “nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.” How many times have you read or heard anti-war campaigners claim that there is some ‘irony’ or ‘hypocrisy’ that the US and UK are using WMD’s to defeat Iraq? But, of course, the US and UK troops have not used nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in Iraq.
Why is all this a problem? Well, in the future we may need to act to deal with genuine war crimes and real use of weapons of mass destruction. Those who will try and obstruct such attempts may claim that the US-UK committed ‘war crimes’ in Iraq and used WMD’s and if the terms are allowed to be abused and redefined then they may be able to confuse enough of the people, enough of the time. In short, the misuse of these terms will not only assist some to attempt to rewrite history it will make it much harder to press the case to protect the victims of real war crimes and the victims, or potential victims, of real weapons of mass destruction.
It may only be language but careless talk can indeed cost lives.