Skip to main content

Faced with the worst state-sanctioned mass atrocities to befall Europe since World War II, Ukraine has stalled but not stopped its giant Russian next-door invader. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the hero-president directing an almost surreal resistance from Kyiv, invokes international ethical-juridical principles as well as myriad geopolitical interests in trying to fully enlist help from the world’s oldest democracy and its NATO allies.

In a social media counter offensive, Zelenskyy is also seeking to put spy-cum-dictator and Donald Trump foreign policy model Vladimir Putin on trial for war crimes before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Unfortunately, Ukraine’s unlikely wartime leader seeks help at a time Washington’s own legacy on international justice issues is emerging from perhaps its lowest point than any time since the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, a steep and bumpy slide from its post-World War II leadership in which it presided over the Nuremberg trials against German Nazi leaders. (I know something about such ups and downs having covered for Newsweek and the Washington Post the 1985 mini-Nuremberg trials of Argentina’s far-right dirty “war” generals who went on to serve as Ronald Reagan administration proxies in not-so-secret wars in Central America.)

Scrambling for a coalition to rival that put forward during the first Gulf War, the Biden administration’s “tough choices” appear to also embrace countries whose leadership were previously officially considered state terrorist provocateurs

Scrambling for a coalition to rival that put forward during the first Gulf War, the Biden administration’s “tough choices” appear to include not only NATO allies but also the embracing of countries whose leadership were previously officially considered state terrorist provocateurs, including oil-producing trump-friendly Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Meanwhile, Putin, backed by the Russian military and his money barons, appears to have taken a leaf from the playbook of former Secretary of State and associateHenry Kissinger’s amoral if profitable prescription for the U.S.’s Latin American neighbors.

During the presidency of Donald Trump, it was the ICC itself that was under attack, with then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another outspoken Putin fan on the eve of the Ukraine massacre, banning the visas of ICC officials and threatening, a la Godfather Michael Corleone, other retaliation would be launched against Court staff and member countries should it dare investigate alleged crimes committed by U.S. and other allied forces in Afghanistan.

The ICC is, at best, a troubled forum, in no small part because the United States, while supportive in other cases in which it has a particular interest, believes the jurisdiction does not apply to its political and military leaders and thus is not one of its 123 State parties who seek to uphold international law in an institution that is the modern and permanent successor to the 1945 Nuremberg trials.

As such, until now Washington often sits on the sidelines – or as it did during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Trump, engages in hostile campaigns – while Court tries individuals who, because their own countries are unwilling or genuinely unable to investigate suspected war crimes, face charges of gravest crimes of concern to the international community, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. (A former aide to Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell, Col. (ret.) Larry Wilkerson, slammed Richard Cheney’s role, and that of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in getting the United States into the second Gulf War, saying that the former Vice President feared being “tried as a war criminal.”)

ICC chief prosecutor, British lawyer Karim Khan QC, has already said he believes that Russia has engaged in war crimes in Ukraine and is ready to investigate as far back as 2013, when Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Should he face charges of crimes against humanity and “waging an aggressive war,” Putin may rue the day in 2016 he pulled Russia out of the Court, with the latter being a crime of an unjustified invasion or conflict and thus not focused on soldiers who tortured and murdered, but rather on those who ordered them to do so.

If charged and still in office, Putin will have the right to a full defense, one that will surely include claiming of fighting off the manipulation of a country’s neighbor by its enemies and counter punching in the international media against those, like President Biden, who seek to hold him accountable not only for bringing terror to the people of Ukraine but also fomenting a chilling fear that World War III is just a bumbling bureaucratic mistake away from happening.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

It is clear that Putin and his dwindling number of international allies will have more than a few arrows in their quiver in their defense. For example, the tragic U.S. militarization of law enforcement at home has, at least until now, all-too-often been accompanied by American efforts to have other countries’ militaries serve as the ultimate deciders of their nations’ fate, whatever the results of electoral contests, flattering those in uniform that they are the only force capable of divining national consciousness and solving their countries’ problems.

Nowhere is this more evident that in the region in which China, and to a lesser extent Russia, have made significant inroads in what used to be called the United States’ “backyard” – Latin America and the Caribbean. Recently a just-retired Honduran president much promoted by the Pentagon was charged and is about to be extradited to the U.S on charges of working with international drug cartels. His defense minister, fearing corruption charges, reportedly has requested asylum in the United States.

Just a few years ago, the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., awarded Mexican General Salvador Cienfuegos, then that country’s Secretary of National Defense, with a coveted award named after a former U.S. Secretary of Defense, even though the former had been credibly implicated in human rights atrocities. In the waning months of the Trump Administration the Drug Enforcement Administration was able to have Cienfuegos arrested in Los Angeles for his alleged services for the “extremely violent” H-2 drug cartel, only to see the general returned to Mexico in gratitude for accommodating the White House’s putinesque “brutal anti-immigration policies.”

The Honduran and Mexican examples are just the latest in a long string of U.S.-supported military outrages in the Western Hemisphere in which hundreds of thousands of rarely armed and frequently darker-skinned political opponents were killed, murdered, and often interred in clandestine graves. These include Argentina,Brazil, Chile, Guatemala,Grenada (now seen by China as a model for invading Taiwan), Paraguay, and Uruguay. No wonder my friend and colleague, the late Christopher Hitchens, would write a factually verifiable epic, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, based on firsthand testimony, new information uncovered by the Freedom of Information Act, as well as unpublished official documents.

On Sunday, Pope Francis strongly condemned the “barbaric” invasion of Ukraine, saying the “unacceptable armed aggression” must stop. Less than a decade ago, he himself was the target of Putin-like “fake news,” in which rumors and questions about his time as the Jesuit provincial superior of Argentina claimed to show his complicity with the imprisonment of two Jesuits during the Argentine military dictatorship. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pope’s chief accuser, muckraking journalist Horacio Verbitsky.

These tactics are nothing new to Verbitsky. His earlier checkered career echoed himself a military collaborationist, had earlier in his checkered career echoed Soviet claims that HIV/AIDS was in fact created in U.S. biological laboratories. (The Soviet Union maintained its diplomatic and economic ties to the Argentine generals throughout the so-called dirty “war” – despite the reign of terror.)

The murky Verbitsky was a fierce and fervent critic of the democratically elected government of Argentine President Raul Alfonsin, who was the first civilian leader in Latin America to put former members of a military dictatorship on trial in civilian court for crimes against humanity. Even today Alfonsin’s legacy reverberates around Latin America and beyond, having brought into focus the need to end the impunity of militaries run wild and their money baron (and drug king) allies. As a judicial precedent on0 state sanctioned mass atrocities, it is, together with Nuremberg itself, one of the very few examples to demonstrably have a bracing effect in Africa, Central America, the Balkans, and more.

The Argentine model is key to a final victory over Vladimir Putin and his efforts to make Ukraine part of his organized crime empire. It is time it is used to end U.S. promotion of military impunity abroad and here at home as well.

For as the ICC itself notes, “The Court is participating in a global fight to end impunity, and through international criminal justice, the Court aims to hold those responsible for their crimes and to help prevent these crimes from happening again.

“The Court cannot reach these goals alone.”

Martin Edwin Andersen