a month ago

How do they sleep at night?

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How do politicians and generals who order the murder of innocent men, women and children sleep at night? Or is it that over time they become psychologically inured to any feeling of pity, of regret?

In our times, many have been the instances of powerful men unleashing their forces against not merely enemy elements arrayed against them but against simple people, who have had no ties to the conflict in question, as well. Is that part of human nature?

But if that is human nature - that brutality with no regrets is the characteristic of the human race - how is it that there are men like Antonio Guterres around to demand that the collective punishment being inflicted on Palestinians by Israel should draw to a close?

Men like Guterres keep our faith in humanity alive, but when men like Anthony Blinken make it known that a ceasefire cannot go into effect in Gaza until Hamas has been fully destroyed, it is the angry visage of humanity we come up against.

Hamas killed 1,400-plus people in its strike on Israel early last month. That was a shame, for Hamas was not waging war against the Israeli army but was crudely going into action against people and families who had nothing to do with its conflict with the state of Israel.

If Hamas is guilty of mass murder, it is the state of Israeli response to its act which shocks us all by its barbarity. As many as 10,000 Palestinians, and that number includes 4,000 children, have died in relentless Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the occupied West Bank. So here is a higher degree of mass murder, but Netanyahu will not stop. He is looking for Hamas in Gaza, not caring that his offensive is causing collateral damage of monstrous proportions in the region.

So where does war crime begin? Is it with a hundred deaths, with a thousand, with tens of thousands, with millions? The plain principle ought to be one: that where a single innocent individual is murdered by an organised force, where a single woman is raped by an occupying army, it is a war crime.

In the later 1980s, General Tikka Khan, asked by a Bangladesh journalist visiting Lahore why his soldiers had murdered so many students and teachers of Dhaka University in cold blood on the night between 25-26 March 1971, the general deadpanned: 'Only two persons were killed as they had been caught in crossfire.'

That was of course a lie, for under Tikka and Niazi death and destruction in occupied Bangladesh were of vastly unimaginable proportions. It was a war crime or a series of war crimes which defined the year, criminality that would never be punished by any international tribunal or by the state of Pakistan. Bangladesh, so determined to try the war criminals, eventually was persuaded to let them go.

When war crimes are not taken into cognisance by such bodies as the International Criminal Court, it is global politics, the sophistication one expects to be associated with it, which takes a mauling. In Rwanda, the theme of war crimes was properly addressed when the global community ensured the punishment of those responsible for the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. Rwanda has returned to being a normal country under President Paul Kagame.

There are war crimes. And there are crimes against humanity. The ageing collaborators of the Pakistan army who went on trial in Bangladesh in the 2000s were guilty of pushing their fellow Bengalis to persecution and death in 1971. Justice was served when they walked the gallows. And justice was served as well when the Khmer Rouge, having murdered two million of their citizens, were pushed back into the jungles.

But Augusto Pinochet and his gang were never punished for the crimes they committed against Chileans following the September 1973 coup against the elected government of President Salvador Allende. It is painful when mass murderers die in bed, are given decent burials and leave behind followers immodest enough to look up to them as saviours of nations.

General Suharto and his army systematically engaged in crimes against humanity through murdering anywhere between a million and two million Indonesians suspected to be communists or communist sympathisers. They were never brought to trial for their crimes.

War crimes were committed in Iraq and not only by Saddam Hussein in Kurdish Halabja. When Tony Blair and George W. Bush sent their armies into Iraq in spring 2003, they committed war crimes not only because they invaded a sovereign country without provocation but also caused, by their act, a long string of destruction of the civilizational heritage Iraq represented in human history. The International Criminal Court did not take these crimes into account and Blair and Bush have continued to walk around and travel as free men.

When war crimes and crimes against humanity are not punished, often in the narrow international interest, it is hypocrisy which issues out of all the noble sentiments voiced on assurance of justice for those who suffer. For decades, thousands of youth in Pakistan's Balochistan province have been killed as well as disappeared by the army.

Human rights organisations have questioned such action by the military, but the army has remained untouched. The Taliban have consistently indulged in crimes against women but have remained impervious to any criticism. Myanmar's military has engaged in an ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, with not the slightest hint that the regime will be in the dock someday.

And this general inability or reluctance on the part of the international community to punish those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity leaves the world open to the commission of misdemeanours by states or those who happen to be their decision-makers.

Harry Truman felt no qualms in dropping the atomic bomb on unarmed, innocent Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. That was a clear instance of a war crime, but Truman remained beyond the pale of international law. The Nazis destroyed lives and countries and subsequently were tried at Nuremberg. So were Tojo's imperialist war criminals in Japan.

Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic could not escape the law after the crimes they committed in the Balkans. Given the double standards on which the law or international convention has operated in relation to such crimes, there are questions whether or not there will ever be action against Netantahyu and his cohorts over Gaza. The ICC has served an arrest warrant against President Putin. Why is it silent on Netanyahu?

War crimes are not merely the deaths of the innocent. They are also an invasion of a country, the continued occupation of land not belonging to the occupiers, the deprivation of food and medicine and water to besieged civilians.

War crimes and crimes against humanity, when not punished, are a hint that the world's leaders are complicit in them. Antonio Guterres' is the lonely voice of sanity in these dark days as the bombs and missiles fall on the Palestinians.

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