Smartphones and the internet have made it possible as never before to transmit the horrors of war from Ukraine to viewers across the world. The village head of Motyzhyn near Kyiv and her family were blindfolded and shot. Mass killings of Ukrainian civilians have been reported in Bucha, which India ‘unequivocally condemned’ at the UN Security Council on Tuesday. Ukraine’s prosecutor-general says Russia has killed 410 civilians around Kyiv alone.
This has created a wave of public outrage. Western politicians and media are trying to ride this, demanding that Vladimir Putin and his men be tried for war crimes. But that would be arrant hypocrisy considering the long list of atrocities in US-fuelled wars, cheered on by the very media expressing horror today over Ukraine.
More important, if the West seeks to create a war crimes tribunal to judge Putin, that will make impossible the need of the hour — to craft a face-saving formula that enables Putin to withdraw from Ukraine. Some politicians want Putin to be dragged into a long war that impoverishes Russia and leads to his ouster. That would, however, mean thousands of unnecessary deaths and massive Ukrainian misery.
Through most of history, conquerors plundered, looted and killed massively, and some created pyramids of decapitated heads of the conquered. The European Enlightenment projected new concepts of human rights and limits to behaviour even in war. Two world wars wrought unprecedented slaughter and led to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, followed later by institutions like the International Court of Justice (ICJ), International Criminal Court (ICC) and various regional organisations.
The United Nations created tribunals to try those accused of war crimes in the Yugoslav civil wars and Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. Western politicians and media — though not yet their governments — are demanding something similar for the Ukraine war.
After World War 2, the victors set up war crimes tribunals to sentence top German and Japanese leaders. This aimed to convict individuals responsible for atrocities in times of war. Of course, the winners decided whom to prosecute: nobody talked about atrocities committed by the winning side. Adolf Hitler deliberately bombed London to kill thousands of civilians and bring Britain to its knees. Targeting civilians is a war crime, and Hitler was guilty. But towards the end of that war, Britain and the US retaliated with revenge bombing of defenceless cities like Dresden. That would be called a war crime today.
The two nuclear bombs dropped by the US on Japan aimed explicitly to kill vast numbers of civilians. That was the greatest war crime of all. Another contender for that title would be the napalm-bombing of Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, which aimed to set fire to the mostly wooden buildings of the Japanese city. It directly killed over 100,000 people, more than the direct deaths at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But nobody suggested trying Winston Churchill, Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower for war crimes. Victors spin morality for their own political ends.
What is happening in Ukraine is terrible. But it is not remotely as terrible as many acts of Britain and the US in World War 2. It is not remotely as terrible as napalm-bombing of Vietnam or mass defoliation of Vietnamese forests with Agent Orange, a poisonous herbicide that killed and maimed millions of civilians. It is not as bad as the lakhs of direct and indirect deaths caused by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the bogus ground that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even some US soldiers have admitted killing civilians in Iraq. For all its talk of wanting rules-based institutions, the US has consistently refused to come under the jurisdiction of the ICJ or ICC. It has boycotted hearings and ignored decisions of the former.
The plain fact is that superpowers like to draw up rules for the behaviour of others but will not countenance being tried for breaking those very rules. The UN structure explicitly blesses this double standard, without which members would withdraw from the UN and cripple its usefulness. Permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) can veto any resolution, including those to set up international tribunals.
Something is better than nothing. When a UNSC consensus is available, it is useful to set up tribunals to try terrible atrocities like those in Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda. They set standards for non-superpowers, and that is a partial achievement. But such consensual tribunals are not possible to prosecute the Big Five or their favoured clients.
Forget both Western hypocrisy and the impracticability of a tribunal to try Russia. The key issue today is to find a quick end to the Ukraine war. Any compromise solution will require face-saving clauses for both sides. Attempts to forge a compromise may fail, but must be tried. That requires, among other things, a formal rejection by Western governments of schemes to prosecute Putin. Pushing a bear into a corner will only stiffen its resistance.
This article was originally published in The Economic Times on April 7, 2022.