In this segment of Reality Asserts Itself, Paul Jay and Vijay Prashad discuss the Chelsea Manning case in light of the 68th anniversary of signing the Nuremberg Charter which states it is illegal to follow orders to commit a war crime
Note from the Editor: When this story was originally taped, August 2013, Chelsea Manning was still identifying as Bradley Manning. We apologize to our viewers for any confusion.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News. Our guest is Vijay Prashad.
In our first segments with Vijay, we talked about identity, and we got to there, to Marx, to socialism, to the Soviet Union, fairly free-ranging discussion. And I encourage you to watch the earlier parts. But we’re going to change gears now. We’re going to talk about the conviction of Private First Class Bradley Manning, and we’re going to talk about something that I think connects with that.
Sixty-eight years ago on August 8 was the signing of the Nuremberg Charter, which established the crime of wars against humanity and the whole concept of war crimes. It was signed by all the major Western countries and the Soviet Union. It was signed by the United States. And let me read you a couple of clauses from that charter. Principle IV of the Nuremberg Charter: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” Or Principle VII: “Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principles VI is a crime under international law.”
Now joining us to talk about Manning, Nuremberg, and what’s become of international law is Vijay Prashad. He’s the Edward Said Chair at the American University at Beirut this year. He’s written many books, including The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. And he writes for The Hindu, he writes for Frontline and CounterPunch.
Thanks for joining us.
VIJAY PRASHAD, PROF. INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: Pleasure.
JAY: So it seems rather clear. International law says, one, illegal war–in fact, I think it’s in that charter, I believe, is the language which more or less says wars of aggression are the highest war crime, highest crime against humanity. The war in Iraq was illegal, according to most legal scholars I’ve heard, including Kofi Annan, who, unfortunately, didn’t really come out and say it until after he left United Nations, but he said it. An illegal war, invading a country is a war crime. If Bradley Manning sees atrocities committed in the course of a war crime, it’s not just some choice he made. It’s not just a moral obligation. Under international law, he actually had a legal obligation, and certainly a defense, for doing what he did. So talk a bit about, you know, the significance of Nuremberg, a bit about Manning, and then we’re going to get into, you know, where is international law anyway.
PRASHAD: Well, look, the first thing to say is that it is true that on August 8, 1945, this Nuremberg Charter appears. It is signed by the major powers. It has the weight of international authority. And it suggests that if you observe something that is a war crime, you are under a legal obligation to report it. That is, you know, unassailable. It is a fact.
JAY: Let me add just one quick thing of context, ’cause I have to keep reminding myself that we have a lot of younger viewers, and partly ’cause our school system stinks, they hardly know, I bet you, what we’re talking about. So just quickly, after the end of World War II, the defeat of Germany, the three, four major Allied partners–Russia, England, and United States–got together and they started to prosecute the leaders of the Third Reich. Hitler was dead as far as we know, but other leaders of the German regime were put on trial. And the basis for having this trial was this Nuremberg Charter, because before that, there really wasn’t anything in international law to say you could try these guys for committing war crimes. Other than that, previously they had just lost a war. And, in fact, often if you just lost a war, in European tradition the king and the leaders would do quite well after the war.
PRASHAD: Correct, I mean, although there were the Geneva Conventions about how wars could be prosecuted, so there were some established conventions preceding Nuremberg.
But the real issue is that what Nuremberg established legally, as a point of international law, is also deeply rooted in, if I may say this, a human common sense. You know, it is a very commonsensical assertion. You know, one tells one’s children this, that if somebody in authority, if a teacher, for instance, tells you to do something, but you think that this thing that you’re being told to do is not right, you might want to assert the fact that you’re not sure you should follow orders. It is a deeply commonsensical idea, which then is established as the rule of nations, because the nations decide to sit down in London and sign this Nuremberg Charter, which sets up the basis for the tribunal not only of Nazi leaders, but also of people who had been complicit in the atrocity of the genocide. You know, it could have been accountants, people who logistically helped send, you know, Jews, communists, Gypsies, homosexuals, etc., to the gas chamber. So it was even bureaucrats, technicians of the Holocaust were culpable, because they didn’t refuse to do, they didn’t sound the alarm against a war crime. And this, I think, is a very important international, you know, horizon for us, that, you know, a state’s responsibility is one thing. But those who are technicians of the state, those who act on behalf of a government, of a military, you know, of any bureaucracy have a conscience, and that conscience is legally binding. You know, it’s not just that they must follow God or their moral compass or things, but there’s a legal requirement that if the conscience suggests that something is wrong, they have to act.
JAY: Yeah, just to read it again, just to quote the Nuremberg Charter, the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.
PRASHAD: Yeah. And so what I would say is that the reason I’m insisting on bringing common sense into this or, you know, what we might understand is a modern human understanding of how we act in the world, the reason I’m bringing this up is that it is the case that despite the fact that people [incompr.] bureaucracies and are tasked to do all kinds of things, people may not be schooled in the niceties of international law, which is a problem, you know, that when you enter a bureaucracy, the military, for instance, you’re not necessarily informed that these are international regulations. You know, what people who enter the U.S. military are often taught is the code of conduct of the U.S. military, which is framed around the parameters of international law. But you’re not necessarily taught the niceties. Common sense suggests that if you see something that’s wrong, you know–.
JAY: But it’s not just wrong, ’cause it’s more than just wrong.
PRASHAD: It’s illegal.
PRASHAD: It’s illegal.
JAY: –’cause when Manning sees the video of the helicopter gunning down essentially unarmed people and then shooting this van that comes up afterward to help these people, that’s a war crime. More than that, it’s a war crime within a war where the whole war itself is a war crime because it’s illegal. And he has a legal obligation to do what he can to go against that. And I wish that had been his defense, and it wasn’t, but I wish they’d used Nuremberg as his defense, because then it would have put the war on trial.
PRASHAD: Let’s talk about that helicopter attack, because that took place in New Baghdad, where Apache helicopters saw something on the ground, people walking around, and they saw somebody, thinking he had a gun. They shot the crowd, killed, it turned out to be, a photojournalist with a international, you know, agency. He was killed in cold blood there. Nobody engaged the helicopters. A car came to help them, to rescue them. They said, give me the signal, I want to shoot, I want to engage, fired in. There were children in the car, etc.
Now, a ground platoon arrived at the scene, and American troops got out and saw what had happened. Many people saw that this was a great–let’s just call it mistake that had taken place. When questions were asked at the time about that attack in New Baghdad, the United States government denied that anything was wrong, and the United States government also said there is no video. In other words, the government was lying and covering up what took people on the ground, even troops–there was one particular troop, a man named Ethan McCord, later would come out and speak about what he saw, but he was suppressed. Bradley Manning saw that video and felt obliged to release it because not only was this an illegal war, not only was this apparently a war crime, but also the government was covering up the war crime. So he released the video via WikiLeaks. When he released the video, Ethan McCord, who was on the ground and saw the little children inside that car, one of them blinded because glass went into her eyes, this shattered Ethan McCord’s approach to what he was doing. But because Manning, this young, young man, took a courageous decision to release this video, it freed up other people in the military to come out and say, yes, we were party to a war crime.
And the great tragedy is that Bradley Manning was then put on trial for espionage, as well as other quite ridiculous charges like computer fraud. He was put on trial. But that war crime was not investigated further.
JAY: And I think that’s–the point is, yes, governments have a right to secrets, yes, in today’s world, governments have a right to military secrets, yes, a soldier should be prosecuted if they simply are releasing secrets and they’ve agreed and signed a contract–I’m going to be a soldier and I won’t release secrets and such and such–but not if the government’s committing war crimes. And that should be the discussion about Manning. It’s not just for transparency’s sake; it’s that it’s a war crime, and war crime has–under international law, you have an obligation to do what you can against your government’s wishes, because these wishes are illegal.
PRASHAD: And you–let’s–this is exactly the issue. I mean, it’s a war crime, it’s a war crime that the government was covering up. It’s a war crime that was giving nightmares to the troops themselves, not just people on the ground, not just those young children who now continue to suffer from, you know, the death of their father, the fact that they are disabled by that attack, etc. It’s certainly that, but it’s something other than that as well. This is a very young man who’s put into action who has a understanding about the world, but it’s not fully developed. A lot of dangerous things come before him, and he has to find a way to bring this up somewhere.
Now, in the United States, whistleblower protection is anemic, is virtually nonexistent. In the military, there is generally, to my understanding, people I have spoken to in the–there is an understanding that the chain of command may not take you seriously if you say that there was a war crime. I mean, after all, the military is not going to be happy to have released for public–.
JAY: Well, in this case we know they covered it up.
PRASHAD: They covered it up. I mean, in other words, what choice did this young person have but to go public?
JAY: So for ordinary Americans watching this interview, this issue of the Nuremberg trial, the issue of international law, the issue of, you know, the Iraq War being a war crime, Manning, even though he didn’t make it his defense, it seems to me he would have a defense under international law for what he did. Why is that important?
PRASHAD: What Bradley Manning did was an honest and, I think, decent thing. You know, he saw something that was wrong, he acted upon it, and he’s paid a terrible price. I think what’s equally sad, you know, equal to the way in which he is being persecuted, what’s equally sad is a very large number of liberal intellectuals who have become judges, who have said from the sidelines, he’s guilty of something, they disagree with a 100-year sentence. They say maybe he should have 20 years or five years or eight years. I mean, to my mind, they’ve lost their mind.
JAY: ‘Cause they won’t accept that the war is illegal. They won’t accept there’s war crimes. And then it just becomes this abstract thing, can a soldier reveal secrets.
PRASHAD: Exactly. This is not about a soldier revealing secrets. This is about a soldier seeing that something to his mind illegal and also immoral had happened, the chain of command had lied or covered it up, and he felt therefore legally and morally obliged to do something about it. And I think we need to salute him for that.
JAY: Alright. Thank you.
Alright. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Reality Asserts Itself. The next episode will be coming in a few days. Thanks very much for joining us on The Real News Network.