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Punish Putin? What about those responsible for war crimes in Vietnam, Iraq, Chile, etc.?

By Bharat Dogra 

There have been recent high-level calls from the west for punishing Vladimir Putin as war criminal for launching an invasion of Ukraine. Of course there can be no punishment without investigation and so these should be presumed to be calls for investigation, to be followed by punishment if guilt is proved beyond doubt in a completely unbiased way. This demand can be justly accepted with two conditions.
Firstly while all adverse impacts of the Ukraine invasion should be investigated, all factors which led to the invasion must also be investigated in a completely unbiased way. Secondly all other invasions of the post-war years ( 1945-2022) should also be investigated applying similar standards, as the worst war criminals involved in them, in some cases responsible for several hundred thousand deaths, have not been punished yet. Several of these war criminals are still alive.
To give just one example let us consider the case of Henry Kissinger who dominated USA foreign policy during 1969 to 1977 in the Presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He was appointed National Security Advisor in 1969 and Secretary of State in 1973. It has been widely documented since then that he played a very important role, likely to be a crucial and decisive role, in initiating and supporting in a big way anti-democratic, illegal, violent, catastrophic actions and activities in several nations which resulted in deaths of a very large number of people, including democratically elected, highly popular national leaders like Allende in Chile and Mujibur Rehman in Bangladesh.
Although documentation for this is spread over hundreds of articles and declassified pieces of information, perhaps the most detailed and most discussed documentation for this is available in a book ‘ Trial of Henry Kissinger’ written by Christopher Hitchens which is written almost as a document which can be used for trial in a court of law.
Of course there is in addition a lot of other documentation, all the more so in the specific context of the tragic events in Chile, Cambodia and Laos, Bangladesh and several other Third World countries which suffered from the coups, killings and carpet bombings unleashed by the arbitrary, ill-reasoned decisions taken by US foreign policy under the watch of Kissinger during 1969-77.
Documentation is also available on opposition to his policies by principled USA officials who were close to local realities and opposed the whimsical decisions of Kissinger taken in cruel violation of the advice of on-the-ground US officials. As Prof. Greg Grandin of New York University wrote, “ A back of the envelope count would attribute three, may be four million deaths to Kissinger’s actions, but that number probably undercounts his victims.”
The reason why Prof. Grandin says this is that the tragic impacts of arbitrary and cruel actions continued long after the immediate catastrophic events. For example the overthrow of the popular, democratic government of Allende in Chile caused a large number of killings, imprisonments and torture cases in the immediate aftermath of the coup, but in addition we cannot forget that this started the long and brutal regime of Pinochet dictatorship, with the support of US foreign policy under Kissinger, and this also led to so many avoidable deaths, imprisonments and tortures over a longer term.
Again in Cambodia and Laos over 3500 carpet bombings caused up to half a million deaths but in addition in Cambodia this indirectly helped the brutal communist regime of Pol Pot to come to power and unleash its own mass deaths. In Bangladesh the immediate results of Kissinger dominated policies led first to the killing of nearly 2.5 million persons in genocide by Pakistani forces and its collaborators in 1971 ( plus emergence of 10 million displaced refugees), and later to the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the popular President, his family members and close colleagues in a coup in 1975. In addition authoritarian military regimes installed by this coup kept their atrocities and repressions going for nearly their 21 years after this.
What makes the conduct of Kissinger even more terrible is that he ignored repeatedly the sane and sage advice of important regional US diplomats. During the ongoing genocide in Bangladesh in 1971 for example, the Dacca based US Consul General and the US Ambassador to India are known to have pleaded repeatedly for stopping the US support for the genocide, but Kissinger and Nixon disregarded them and their advice and went ahead with their total support for ‘good friend’ Yahya Khan, who was overseeing the genocide from his base in Pakistan.
The repeated misdeeds reveal the working of a highly cynical , narrow and cruel mindset, insensitive to mass human suffering and guided only by perceived self-interest. This is revealed in his statements like asking for bombing anything that moves ( in the context of Cambodia ) and saying in the context of Cyprus—the illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer. In the context of the Iran-Iraq war he said—Let them kill each other. He made fun of those who expressed anguish at the massacre of ‘Bengali Hindus’.
It is also one of the biggest ironies of recent history that the same Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, resulting in a controversy which continued for a long time, involving also the resignation of two award committee members.
This is not just a matter of an individual, with the support of his powerful backers, somehow not only escaping punishment for very destructive deeds but also winning the most prestigious award. The more worrying aspect is that when such crimes against humanity go unpunished and in fact are rewarded, then this is likely to pave the way for even worse crimes in future.
There should not be such glaring double standards by the west—giving the biggest award to their own war criminal responsible for the death of at least two million innocent people, while asking for the quick punishment of a Russian war criminal who may be responsible for the death of few thousand innocent persons.
In Vietnam, a country which initially wanted the USA to be an important friend while bravely struggling to oust colonial rulers, the USA responded by such heavy bombing that in tonnage terms it exceeded World War bombing. About 2 million people were killed. Chemicals poisons were thrown on forests and farms on a scale never seen in human history. Nearly 10 million hectares of land was turned barren. Village after village was destroyed. People including children were burnt to death in napalm raids.
Two entirely avoidable invasions of Iraq and equally avoidable sanctions led together to several hundred thousand deaths. The extremely serious impacts of depleted uranium weapons used in Iraq have continued to cause enormous suffering even after several years.
There are numerous such cases of invasions in the post war years which should be investigated in an unbiased way. Then there were remote-controlled coups leading to the fall of democratic, popular governments, accompanied sometimes by assassination of most loved leaders, from Lumumba to Allende to Mujib. An unbiased investigation would identify many war criminals, including top leaders, to be followed by punishment which should be in keeping with the seriousness of the crime.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril' and ‘Protecting Earth for Children'

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