Lessons from Mosul: Double Standards, War Crimes and Lack of Accountability
Last week the Iraqi government announced that Mosul has been ‘liberated ‘ from the control of ISIS. The major campaign for Mosul’s liberation began in October 2016 when the US led coalition massively increased both bombing raids and artillery attacks that had in fact been going on since ISIS captured the city in 2014.
Civilian casualties have been substantial. Amnesty International estimates that there were nearly 6000 civilians killed between February and June 2017 alone, as a result of the coalition attacks. This figure excludes the mass bombardment of the past few weeks.
Western media reports of the carnage wrought on the city and its inhabitants have generally avoided recounting either the relevant history or the facts about the consequences for the civilian population. That relevant history includes the well documented fact that ISIS and other terrorist groups are created, armed and supported by the same coalition States now claiming to be wanting to eliminate them. They were, and are, proxies on behalf of the geopolitical goals of the “coalition “.
The reporting includes a range of language techniques designed to minimise or downplay what are undoubtedly war crimes. As Patrick Cockburn has pointed out, the contrast in reporting with the earlier battle for Eastern Aleppo last year could not be greater.
As Russian and Syrian forces fought to defeat ISIS’s hold on East Aleppo, the western media kept up a non-stop barrage of anti Russian and anti Syrian propaganda. As Cockburn aptly summarised it:
“When civilians are killed or their houses destroyed during the US led bombardment of Mosul, it is ISIS State that is said to be responsible for their deaths: they were deployed as human shields. When Russia or Syria target buildings in East Aleppo, Russia or Syria is blamed: the rebels had nothing to do with it.”
Cockburn has recently published an update on the death toll arising out of the US led coalition’s assault on Mosul. Cockburn puts the death toll at more than 40,000 civilians. Cockburn’s report was first published in the UK newspaper The Independent, ironically Russian owned. The so-called free press of the mainstream western media have been conspicuously silent on Cockburn’s revelations. One can imagine the confected outrage that would have accompanied publication of comparable figures for the Russian/Syrian liberation of East Aleppo.
One of the fundamental reasons for this different standard of reporting is that the Iraq government is an “ally” whereas Presidents Putin and Assad are “enemies” to be demonised at every opportunity, regardless of the facts.
The second lesson is that what the US led coalition are perpetrating in Mosul (and many other places) are war crimes. Mosul is a relatively densely populated city of one million people. Intense artillery barrages and large scale aerial bombing should never be deployed against a civilian population. To do so is a major war crime which is defined in the statute that established the International Criminal Court as including grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions such as wilful killing, or causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health.
There can be no serious argument that what has been perpetrated against the civilians of Mosul is a war crime. Again, the western media reporting is instructive. Coalition attacks are always “carefully targeted”, and “ every effort is made to reduce civilian casualties” and similar phrases.
The liberation of East Aleppo, which in fact was of shorter duration with far less material damage and fewer civilian casualties, was relentlessly portrayed as Russia and Syria’s disregard for human life and suffering.
Australia is a party to the war crimes inflicted on Mosul. A “party” in criminal law is one who carries out the principal crime, or does something to “aid, abet, counsel or procure” the principal to carry out the acts.
Although the Australian government is remarkably coy about exactly what its troops are doing in Iraq (and Syria) there is no doubt that they fall within the definition of one or more of the elements that constitute being a party. They are thereby culpable under international law for the unlawful acts carried out by the coalition of which the ‘liberation’ of Mosul is but one recent glaring example.
Australian Defence Force personnel, Army, Air Force and Navy are undoubtedly deployed. Repeated public pronouncements by Prime Minister Turnbull, Foreign Minister Bishop and Defence Minister Payne confirm that their role in Iraq and Syria is an active one. Only occasionally, as with the “mistaken” bombing of Syrian troops are some of the actual details revealed, only to immediately disappear from the public discourse. There are whole libraries of public pronouncements by our politicians in support of the US. Typically the US is urged to do more to promote and uphold its particular version of acceptable geopolitical behaviour. It is also exceedingly well documented how Australia has joined in nearly every American military misadventure since World War 2, either as a participant or providing political support. That list alone is substantial. (Blum, America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, Zed Books, 2014)
Australia’s role is never portrayed in those terms by the mainstream media. American actions are always “upholding the international rules based order”, “bringing peace and stability to troubled regions “, or “ridding the world of an unspeakable tyrant “ and so on.
It follows in the eyes of the mainstream media that if you do no wrong, you can never be held to account for wrongdoing. That is exclusively the fate of any designated enemy du jour. The brutal truth however is that a number of western nations, including but not limited to, the Americans, the British, the French and Australia have consistently violated international law. This is never the subject of serious analysis in the mainstream media, let alone critical comment or any demanding that the perpetrators be held to account.
The notion of accountability for waging a war of aggression and committing war crimes and other atrocities had a brief flowering after World War 2 with the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. Since then, the notion of accountability has become one of those quaint relics, almost a legal fiction.
Illegally invading, occupying, and destroying countries, creating untold human suffering and material damage, and causing millions to be displaced or forced into becoming refugees has befallen at least a dozen countries this century alone as a direct result of the depredations of western nations.
Yet despite this, there has not been a single trial of the political or military leadership of the various countries that regularly form part of US led coalitions. Unless and until we actually adhere to the basic precepts of international law, which includes but is not limited to not attacking other countries, and holding the violators of those acts accountable in a meaningful way, we will continue down an essentially lawless path. That path is fraught with danger to the world. The least we could do in the meantime is to stop pretending that otherwise is the case.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.