Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
Colin Powell made this comment in the context of the US decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC). It was also made right after comments about the US's role in setting up the War Crimes Tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. After the events of the past two years one wonders; one wonders to whom the standards apply.
When the comment was made, it was clear that Powell thought those standards applied to the United States as well as to other countries. That is why he thought the US did not have to join the ICC; it did not have to join the ICC because it was fully capable of policing itself and, more importantly, could be relied upon to police itself. Today it is less clear that the US has the will to police itself. It is less clear that the US has the courage to hold its top officials accountable for their errors and mistakes.
It is very clear that Donald Rumsfeld has a lot to answer for. Most recently he acknowledged that, on his orders, a person suspected of being a senior member of the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group was held for seven months without being registered as a prisoner, or enemy combatant, or even as a criminal. This failure to register prisoners is a direct contravention of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Furthermore, Rumsfeld has presided over a Defense Department that has, in many ways, violated the expectations the world has of how a civilized society deals with its enemies:
- Defense Department lawyers have submitted briefs suggesting that the Geneva Convention does not apply in the war on terrorism.
- Defense Department lawyers have pushed the boundaries of the behaviors allowed during interrogation so that activities commonly thought of as torture have been permitted.
- Up to now, the US Government and the Defense Department has dealt with the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in a purely hierarchical fashion:
- ignored the responsibilities of the Secretaries of Defense and War
- ignored the responsibilities of the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army Chief of Staff
- ignored the responsibilities of the senior Army commanders of Central Command and the Multi-National Forces, Iraq
- issued reprimands to low level officers who were, through their negligence, implicated in the atrocities
- are undertaking courts martial of the low level soldiers who are accused of carrying out the abusive activities.
Of course Donald Rumsfeld is not alone in this failure to take accountability for the activities of his subordinates. His boss, President George W. Bush, is equally culpable. He too has failed to hold America to its high standards. He has failed to adhere to the dictates of International Law. He and his co-conspirator, Dick Cheney, have lied about the link between Saddam and Al Quaeda. He and his whole administration have been very selective in their use of intelligence data in order to support the Iraq war that seems, in retrospect, to have been unnecessary:
We can and will call George Bush to account in November. But will George Bush call his Secretary of Defense to account before that?