Sunday, May 23, 2004

Say no to coalition impunity

The US/UK are trying to get the UN to grant their soldiers immunity from Iraqi law as part of the June 30th "handover".

There are three reasons to oppose this. Firstly, legal jurisdiction is a central part of sovereignty. Excluding American and British soldiers will undermine the sovereignty (not to mention the legitimacy) of the new Iraqi government. After all, what sort of "sovereignty" is it when you are forbidden from enforcing your own laws in your own territory? It is one thing to surrender those rights voluntarily, but to have them unilaterally denied? It makes the whole handover a joke.

Secondly, it's already quite clear that American and British civilian and military law have failed to deter abuses, and that there may be significant problems establishing jurisdiction over some people accused of crimes (such as civilian contractors). Making coalition forces subject to Iraqi law will solve this problem, and help ensure that members of the occupying force who commit crimes can be brought to justice.

Finally, there's the whole question of why this is before the UN in the first place. Normally status-of-forces-agreements covering things such as legal jurisdiction are negotiated between the countries involved, without the intervention of third parties. If the US and UK wish to remain in Iraq, they should negotiate such an agreement in good faith with the new Iraqi government after the handover - not attempt to unilaterally impose one by an outside agency. This is the sort of decision which should be made by the Iraqi people or their representatives, not by the US/UK, and not by the UN.

One of the biggest problems with the occupation is lawlessness - not just the lawlessness permitted by the occupiers, but the lawlessness of the occupation forces themselves. From day one, they've been killing civilians in dubious circumstances with no legal consequences. Whenever a bomb goes off, they start shooting at random. And then there's the beatings, abuse, humiliation and torture. US authorities have turned a blind eye to most of this (their rules of engagement seem to allow them to kill civilians at will and at random in the name of "force protection"); it's only with the recent Abu Ghraib photos that they've been spurred to act. And that simply isn't good enough. Granting immunity will continue the current US culture of impunity. The only way to change that culture is to subject US forces to a legal jurisdiction independent of US military or civilian authority.

(I've focused on the US in the last part because the UK is already subject to an independent jurisdiction: the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This acts as a strong incentive for the British to both set civilised rules of engagement (you may notice that British soldiers don't shoot at anything that moves), and to swiftly prosecute criminal behaviour and violations of the laws of war. They can't turn a blind eye or gloss over abuses, because if they don't prosecute, then the ICC will do it for them...)