Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sovereign Impunity

If the front page of Watching America is any indication, the bloom is off the rose when it comes to President Barack Obama. He's no longer seen as "savior" by either the left or the right, in this country or in the rest of the world. Some articles do provide a fair assessment of the enormous mess he inherited and the moves he has made these past eleven months in trying to fix things, but many simply note the glacial pace at which his administration tends to move.

One such article, written by Jonathan Power for the Jordan Times, focuses on a subject whch garnered a lot of ink and electrons when it first came up and which just as suddenly was dropped by the American news corporations, that of investigating the prior administration for their role in kidnapping and torturing people in connection with the "Global War On Terror." Mr. Power's primary target is that of Henry Kissinger, the Teflon don of war criminals, but it's clear Mr. Kissinger's behavior is as good a metaphor as any for those in the Bush-Cheney administration.

Someone, somewhere, has to say it and thus confirm what the Pentagon always feared would happen if an international war crimes court were established: that the US harbours war criminals of its own and they have served not that long ago at the apex of power in the American government.

No one is going to act like the recently deceased Robert McNamara who served as secretary of defence under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In one speech, he described himself as a war criminal - for being party to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for his role in the Vietnam war.

The Obama administration has to move faster. After a furious public debate, it has agreed to look into whether senior members of the administration of President George W. Bush should be prosecuted for war crimes, including torture. But the process is achingly slow. One wonders if it will end up hitting a brick wall, as did the talk that has gone on for decades about prosecuting Henry Kissinger, the former national security adviser and secretary of state to president Richard Nixon.
[Emphasis added]

The slow pace is no accident. Once the dramatic announcement was made, the pressure was off. The news media, after an unusual burst of reporting at the decision, went silent. There were more pressing issues to cover: the economy, the stimulus package, health care reform, the latest activities of Sarah Palin.

Now, it is entirely possible that Attorney General Eric Holder is in fact directing a thorough-going investigation and it is also entirely possible that he has imposed an effective gag-rule on the Department of Justice with respect to the investigation. We don't know, however, because nobody has bothered to ask. Apparently the subject of war crimes committed in our name is just not very interesting.

The problem is that unless that question is asked, thereby reminding the nation and the world of that painful period of our recent history, we can't be sure that anything is happening, anything at all. This would be tragic, because it renders the concept of justice meaningless when it comes to those in power. Mr. Power refers to a comparable situation in which the questions never stopped coming and finally resulted in a definitive answer:

After [Chilean President Augusto] Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998, the ruling by Britain’s highest court, the House of Lords, crystallised half a century of debate on the legal and political problems of accountability for crimes against humanity. For the first time in a high court anywhere it was decided that sovereign immunity must not be allowed to become sovereign impunity. [Emphasis added]

That is something this nation and its leaders need to learn.

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