Professor Noam Chomsky tells Press TV that the United States is a terrorist state according to the definition of terrorism, but it has the power to reject international law.
Press TV has conducted an exclusive interview with Professor Noam Chomsky, famous American linguist and philosopher, to shed more light on United States war crimes and the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court. What follows is an approximate transcription of the interview.
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Professor Chomsky thank you so much for joining us.
My first question is, how does international criminal law define the concept of war crime?
Well, a major contribution to this was the Nuremberg Tribunal, which was later incorporated into international law and it defines aggression as the supreme international crime, war crime, different from others, other war crimes in that it includes all of the evil that follows.
So to apply it to a recent case, the US-British supreme crime of invading Iraq includes within it guilt for the conflicts that followed, the destruction of the mosque at Samarra, the Sunni-Shiite conflict, all the terror, everything that followed.
How significant were the Nuremberg trials in establishing the principles of international law regarding war, genocide and so forth?
They were significant, it is good that they took place, but we should remember that they were deeply flawed.
The Nuremberg principles are laudable, but the practice was pretty awful.
So for example the practice defined war crime as a crime that the Nazis committed and we did not commit, crucially; so Nazi defendants were able to plead in defense that the US and Britain had carried out the same crimes and that was accepted, they would then released them.
And so Admiral Doenitz, a submarine commander, he brought in testimony; top figures in the British admiralty and the American Admiral Nimitz, who testified that “yes, we committed the same crimes,” so therefore he was not guilty of those crimes.
Heavy bombing of urban concentrations, which is a major crime, they were excluded altogether because the allies did more than the Germans and it sort of continues like that. So, the general principles deserve respect, but the practice deserves contempt.
According to one of the Nuremberg principles, principle four; war crime is defined as “ Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances.”
So, I guess my question is, based on this definition could the US and UK-led war against Iraq in 2003 be considered an instance of a war crime?
It’s a paradigm example. It is also incidentally related to the current issues over Iran in an interesting way, which is never discussed.
The US and Britain tried to provide a kind of a thin legal cover for the invasion. The legal cover was, as you know that Saddam had not ended his programs of weapons of mass destruction.
The legal basis was that they appealed to a Security Council resolution 687 (1991), which called upon Saddam to terminate programs of weapons of mass destruction and the legal basis for the invasion was that he had not done it, of course he had done it, but then that was later discovered.
The interesting part of this, if you read that resolution, Article 14; it commits the signers to work for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region.
The US and Britain are obligated to do that, uniquely, because of the background that I mentioned; it has almost universal international support - just about everybody. At the recent Non-Aligned (NAM) meeting in Tehran, it was again strongly supported.
Egypt, for almost 20 years, has been leading the Non-Aligned Movement in trying to move towards doing this and it has almost total support and there is a meeting coming up, a conference in Helsinki in the next couple of months to try to move this forward.
Well, it is not going to get anywhere for a simple reason, the US is against it. The US has been blocking it for many years and Obama’s current position is, that is a fine idea, but not now, and Israel has to be excluded -which is forget it, no! And Israel has already indicated that it is probably not going to attend the conference.
If you look at what is called the free press, it is quite interesting that there is not a single word about this; there is not even a single word about the upcoming conference, which is the obvious way to deal with whatever threat you want. That is pretty impressive, I do not think that you could achieve that in a totalitarian state.
And it is not under government pressure, it is not a conspiracy, it is just internalized in the educated classes that you don’t expose the crimes of state. It is so deeply internalized that they cannot even think of doing it.There literally isn’t a word.
How much power does the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court [ICC] have, at the end of the day?
It is kind of like the United Nations. Technically there is power; but in reality they can do exactly what the major powers, mainly the US allow them to do and nothing more.
So it is true of the United Nations, it is true of the International Court of Justice [ICJ], true of the International Criminal Court [ICC]; so they are bounded by what the great powers, mainly the US primarily, will allow and if you look at the cases they have taken, you can see it. They only take cases that the US wants to prosecute.
So theoretically speaking, could the ICC actually issue warrants of arrest for George W. Bush and Tony Blair?
Well, there is a legislation in the United States, as you may know, that is passed by Congress, signed by President Bush, which in Europe is called the Netherlands Invasion Act.
What it does, the legislation authorizes the United States to use force to rescue any American who is brought to the Hague.
The United States is the only country in the world that has rejected an International Court of Justice condemnation that ordered the United States back in 1985 to 1986 to terminate the terrorist attack against Nicaragua and pay huge reparations; the US reacted by Congress expanding the funding for the attacks and the (ICJ) court was dismissed.
So for example right now as you know, the Palestinian Authority is appealing to the General Assembly to upgrade the status of the Palestinians at the United Nations and the US is strongly opposed, Israel of course is opposed; and most of the world supports it.
The primary reason is that if the Palestinian Authority were upgraded, it would theoretically have the option of bringing war crime cases against Israel to the International Criminal Court. Of course the US would never allow this to proceed, but they do not want to be in a position were they have to publicly bar prosecution of criminal cases, so they’re trying very hard to prevent it from happening - all kinds of punishments of the Palestinians, threatened and so on; and this is one of the main reasons.
Why was the ICC set up in the first place?
The whole International legal apparatus was established in stages after the second World War. The second World War was pretty much of a shock; some pretty awful things happened.
There was a lot of pressure for making sure that things like that don’t happen again. You read the charter of the United Nations, it opens by saying “We want to free the world from the scourge of war, which has just been so hideous... and so on.”
And out of that came revitalization or innovation, partly revitalization of structures the way they are under the League of the Nations, but they never done anything and so you get the International Court of justice, later the International Criminal Court and so on.
And the 1949 Geneva Convention, later the Geneva protocol, and over the years there has just been the expansion of the pressure to develop the system of international law. The definition of aggression you read is there, but it was later extended and accepted by the General Assembly unanimously and so on.
And this of course goes way back. In 1928 there was a treaty, Kellogg-Briand Treaty, to try to outlaw war - it was a reflection of the horrors of the First World War. You go back earlier you get the Hague Convention a century ago and so on.
So there has been a long effort over the century, in fact going back to the late 19th century to do something about the incredibly destructive character of modern war.
There is a general understanding among people with grey cells functioning that we have to do something about this; and out of this came a set of principles. Unfortunately the set of principles, however nice they are on paper cannot be implemented unless the major power systems permit it.
And how important was the principle of ‘starting a war of aggression’ as we talked about earlier, or ‘crimes against peace’ in proceedings at Nuremburg that led to the hanging of many leading Nazis?
Can the International Criminal Court prosecute these crimes?
Yes, it was a major factor in hanging of Nazi war criminals; in fact, if you look closely, it’s even more pertinent to the present. So, [Joachim] von Ribbentrop, [German] Foreign Minister, one of the charges against him was that he supported a preemptive war against Norway. The Nazis knew that the British were thinking of invading from Norway, so they preempted it and established a quisling government there. That was one of the crimes against von Ribbentrop.
How about Colin Powel? He justified a preemptive war against no threat. So if von Ribbentrop was hanged, OK!...
So could the International Criminal Court do something like that? Only if it wanted to be immediately destroyed.
You know, the architecture of International Law since World War II, apart from article 51 of the United Nation’s Charter, the right to self-defense, requires the Security Council to legitimize political violence and criminal action.
Is there any possibility that International Law will one day challenge the supremacy of the Security Council?
Well, of course, in a certain sense... I mean for one thing the great powers don’t pay any attention to it. So for example, you look at article two of the UN charter; It bans the threat or use of force in international affairs. Every time President Obama or any other Western leader opens his mouth; He is issuing a threat of force against Iran. That’s what it means to say all options are open and it’s not an idle threat; they take a look at the armaments in the area and so it is a very wide threat; and nobody says a word.
I wrote an article criticizing the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Going back to the 13th century, there is a fundamental principle that people are..., the Magna Carta, that people are innocent until proved guilty, and if a charge that we have brought to a fair and speedy trial and so on. Well, now everything is violated.
There was a lot of anger about that. There was one interesting response from a well-known, left Liberal, young political analyst Matthew Yglesias, he said this is extremely naive because the whole purpose of International Law is to legitimate the use of force by the Western powers, mainly the United States. He is not wrong. It’s nice to have somebody say the words, but what he is saying is Look! Forget all the rhetoric, this is pure farce, we’re just like the Nazis we do what we like.
And is there any fundamental problem that war crimes rather like terrorism is never defined properly.
No, that’s not true. Terrorism is defined very properly. I’ve been writing about terrorism since 1981, since Ronald Reagan came into office and declared that a war on terror would be the centerpiece of the American policy; but after that there is a huge amount of literature on terrorism and I wrote about it too.
But what I have wrote is excluded... for a very simple reason, I took the official definitions of terrorism, which were very good, I took the definition that is given in US and British law, which is a fine definition but has a flaw; If you apply it, it turns out the United States is one of the leading terrorist states in the world.
And since you cannot have that conclusion, I have to find a new definition and for the last 30 years there have been extensive efforts to find a definition of terrorism; there is academic conferences, scholarly works and so on and they are all based on what you just said, there is no good definition.
Actually there is no good definition that defines terrorism, so that it includes what they do to us, but doesn’t include what we do to them, which is usually much worse. And it is hard to get a definition with that property, but the definitions are fine.
They are in the US code and in the British law, they are endorsed by UN resolutions and so on, it is just that they are inapplicable because if you apply them, you get the consequences as I described.
Is there any point in International law when countries like the United States, Israel and the UK can just ignore it?
It could change if popular movements within the powerful states compel the government to stop being rogue states.
By now the world is considerably more diverse. The US is still, by far, the most powerful state, but it can still and does pronounce the principles of 1945, but it is much harder to implement them and often it cnn’t.
US power has diminished increasingly in the recent years. I don’t want to run through it, but it really starts in the late 1940s. So one thing that can change is the international system; another major factor has to be internal to the aggressive states.
With regard to Israel it is a different issue. Israel can do just as much as the US allows it to do. So if the US were to withdraw participation of Israel crimes, it would have to stop
Why does the United States avoid to be involved in the ICC?
For the same reason that it rejects the World Court jurisdiction. As I said it’s the only country to have rejected the International Court Justice’s decision. It is above the law, it wants to be able to act freely.
In fact, why is the US so hostile to Iran? It’s kind of interesting to look and we have an authoritative answer that comes from the Pentagon and the US Intelligence.
They say Iran could be a deterrent to the United States and the US cannot tolerate a deterrent. If you want to use force freely and you feel you have a right to, a deterrent can’t be tolerated.