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Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Phyllis Bennis speaks at the Conference on the George W. Bush Presidency about why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan violated international law

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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: At the George W. Bush Presidential Conference at Hofstra University, several former Administration officials defended the legacy of the 43rd President and argued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were legally just and carried out in the best interest of the American people. However, there were a few dissenting voices, among them author and scholar Phyllis Bennis. She’s a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: I wanted to start in discussing George W. Bush with a quote from someone who’s always been a great heroine of mine, a woman named Diane Nash. Have people here heard of Diane Nash? I see some yeses. Diane Nash was a great hero of the civil rights movement. She was, at the age of I think 18 or 19, she was the one who really orchestrated the march in Selma fifty years ago. And last week, at the commemoration of the march on Selma, she was being honored in the front row of those who were going to march to commemorate that extraordinary experience. And at the last minute, she said this. She refused to march. And she said, and I quote, “I refuse to march because George Bush marched.” He was in the front row with her. “I think the Selma movement was about non-violence and peace and democracy, and George Bush stands for just the opposite. For violence and war and stolen elections, and his administration had people tortured, so I thought that this was not an appropriate event for him.” I think she was right. It was not an appropriate event for him. And it’s actually, I think, a good thing that he’s not here today, because this is not an appropriate event for him, either. I would assert that the only public event that is appropriate today for George Bush and the others of his administration is to be on trial in the Hague for war crimes. And I think that when we look at war crimes, it’s important that we look at it and interrogate it more thoroughly than I think we sometimes do. Both, in my view, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were illegal. In Afghanistan, the claim was made that this was a war for justice and for self-defence, when in fact it was about revenge and propaganda, partly to prepare the way for the coming war in Iraq, which was the primary war. It was illegal because it was not self-defence. Article 51 of the UN Charter is very specific about what self-defence is and is not, and among other things it says that a country has the absolute right of self-defence, until – the critical word, until – the Security Council can meet and decide what to do about that particular crisis. Well, the Security Council met, as you will remember — those of you who aren’t too young, and those of you too young to remember, I don’t want to hear from you. The Security Council met within 24 hours of the attack on the Trade Center. The building was still smoldering. Diplomats had lost friends. Some had children in the area. It was a terrifying thing for people at the UN as well as everywhere else in New York, and for those of us in Washington as well. They would have, on that day, passed anything the U.S. proposed. But the U.S. did not propose an endorsement of the use of force. It was a very specific decision not to do that. Not because it wouldn’t have passed – it would have passed unanimously, and with great fervor, as the resolution did. It called for a variety of things having to do with tracing the money, and several other things. But it was not a resolution to be taken under the terms of Chapter 7, the criteria in the UN Charter that is the only basis for the use of force. And in that sense, it was not self-defence, and it did not meet the standard for self-defence in the United Nations. And, of course, under Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, treaties are part of the law of the land. Treaties include the UN Charter. So that was clearly a violation. Whether or not the President makes a decision, Congress makes a decision, doesn’t determine whether international law has been violated. And in this case, it was violated. In the question of Iraq – I would just say one other thing on the question of self-defence. If the U.S. had managed to scramble a plane, to take down the second plane that was about to crash into the towers, that would have been a legitimate use – horrific as it would be – a legitimate use of self-defence. Going to war three weeks later, against a country on the other side of the world, was not legitimate self-defence. In Iraq, we had many claims of why the war was legitimate. It was weapons of mass destruction. It was the possibility of nuclear weapons. It was the links to Al-Qaeda. It was yellow cake uranium. It was the aluminum tubes that could only be used for nuclear weapons. It was all these things. Well, as we know, none of those were true. It was a war fought for a host of other reasons – I’m not going to get into all of those reasons – that have to do with power, the expansion of power, military bases, oil, and a host of other issues of resources and power. But I think that we do have to recognize that the region is more dangerous now because of the illegal wars waged by George W. Bush than would have been the case otherwise. And I think when we talk about war crimes, it’s also important that we distinguish the war crimes that have to do with how wars are carried out from another kind of war crime. The crimes that have to do with how the war was carried out are more common in much of our discourse. So the issues of collective punishment, shock and awe, the massive civilian deaths that were known that were going to occur, and the acts were carried out anyway. The thousands that were killed. The rendition, the black sites of interrogation. Torture. All of those things. The determination that some prisoners somehow don’t deserve the Geneva Conventions, as though that’s the right of some lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department to decide that some prisoners don’t deserve to be treated under the terms of the Geneva Conventions. All of these things were illegal. All of them were war crimes. There were specific war crimes that have to do with specific violations of the Geneva Conventions. Article 33, that prohibits collective punishment. Article 29, that says that a party to the conflict, the government of one’s side in that conflict, is responsible for the treatment of people living under occupation regardless of who, what agent of that government carries out the action. That goes to the question of command responsibility, and the obligations of the commander. The Commander-in-Chief, and all those up and down the chain of command to be responsible for that. We saw none of that. We saw low-level accountability against three or four people in the Abu Ghraib scandal, and nothing – nothing – above very few, very low-ranking soldiers. Article 47 of the Geneva Conventions, that say that people that are protected under that, under the Geneva Convention, cannot be denied protection by actions taken either by the occupying force, or by the government that’s in place. So things like dissolving the military and sending home 300,000 soldiers without a job, without any way to support their family, was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. All of those are talked about, not only in the context of international law, but they’re talked about a lot as the legacy, as part of the legacy of the Bush administration. What’s not talked about very often is what Justice Jackson, who was a Supreme Court justice, as you all know, and also served as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. What Justice Jackson called the supreme international crime. Which was, of course, not a violation of the Geneva Conventions of the fourth Geneva Convention, which didn’t exist at that time. It was the crime of aggression. That that was the fundamental crime. The supreme crime from which all the others stemmed. And these were wars of aggression. They were not self-defence. They were, in Justice Jackson’s words, the supreme international crime. They were grounded in the concept of U.S. exceptionalism. American exceptionalism. Something that has guided U.S. foreign policy from the first settlers on this land who took it as manifest destiny their right to slaughter native people across this land to claim the land as their own. That we are different. We are better. We have the right to do whatever we want around the world, to take the world to war … because we have been the victims of a terrorist attack. Imagine if another country were in that situation. Let’s take an attack that actually did happen years earlier, in 1976. Cuba was the victim of a terrorist attack when terrorists put two bombs on a civilian airliner that crashed over the Mediterranean, killed 73 people. Among them, the entire young Cuban fencing team, several government officials, and other civilians were on board. It was a clear act of terror. One of the known masterminds of that terrorist act, Luis Posada Carriles, was living for many years in Miami. He was first charged at one point with an immigration violation, and was briefly put under house arrest. But he was never jailed. He was never tried for the terrorist attack. What if Cuba had decided that because they had been victims of a terrorist attack – a horrific terrorist attack – that they now had the right to send drones to attack Carriles or someone else in Miami? Or to take the world to war to revenge that attack? Would we have said, well, that’s their right? They have been the subject of a terrible terrorist attack, and therefore they have the right to go to war. I don’t think so. I don’t think that would have been our response. The U.S. only allows itself to violate international law with impunity, and to demand that the world stand with it. That was the nature of this Manichean point of you’re either with us or with the terrorists. It wasn’t just about reclaiming the global solidarity that we saw during those first hours in those first days, when the world said, we are all Americans now. It was about saying, if you are not prepared to go to war with us, we will treat you as if you were terrorists, and we will go to war against you. It was that kind of Manichean approach. And it has to do with this notion that we heard from George Bush — it wasn’t on September 11th, it was on September 12th. It was September 12th, I would submit, that changed the world. Not September 11th. September 11th was a horrific crime. A crime against humanity. September 12th was the announcement that the response to that horrific crime would be to take the world to war. And what we heard was that the only choice we had was to either go to war or to let them get away with it. Unfortunately, we too often hear that same argument now. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. There is never only the choice of war or nothing. There are always a host of alternatives. And it’s our job as students, as activists, as diplomats, as elected officials, to find those alternatives. And that’s what didn’t happen. Justice Jackson said something else at the time of Nuremberg. He said, and I quote him here: “If certain acts and violations are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others that we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” Justice Jackson was betrayed by George W. Bush and his Administration. It was in the context of that refusal to acknowledge the reality of international law and the views of the rest of the world – and I know there are probably people here, either in the audience or who are listening on long distance – who don’t believe international law really ha any role to play. Who don’t believe in international law. And I would just say that for those of you in that position, you might want to think about one thing. Whether you want to accept the legitimacy of international law or not – frankly doesn’t matter very much – but it does matter in this sense. It is how the rest of the world views our actions. It is how the other 197 countries around the world view what we do. It is through that lens of international law and international legitimacy – or lack of legitimacy – that other people judge our actions. And it’s for that reason that the legacy of George W. Bush is going to be that of a war criminal. NOOR: Go to for all of our coverage of the George W. Bush Presidential Conference.


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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.