While crime is committed by individuals and groups of people, nation states also engage in criminal activity. Clearly a nation as an entity cannot commit a crime but a government within that nation can, frequently without the knowledge and support of the people of that nation. While such governments are in power and engaging in criminal offences, there are only two ways to remove them and bring them to justice. The first would be an uprising by the people within that nation and the other would be action by international forces frequently via the United Nations – to give such action legality. International pressure usually starts with a diplomatic warning to stop what you are doing. If this fails the next stage up would be an embargo of trade etc. with the offending nation. If this fails, then the UN does have recourse to military action. When the UN is not involved, organisations such as NATO might take the decision to engage in military action.
A classic case would be Libya in 2011. It is now clear that the Gaddafi regime was engaged in criminal activities against the people of Libya for decades. The recently discovered mass grave (September 2011) of about 1500 men by a former prison used by the Gaddafi regime is one example of how opponents of the regime were dealt with. Over the decades Gaddafi was in power, thousands of deemed opponents disappeared and no one can account for their whereabouts. This may be resolved once DNA testing has been done on the numerous graves that have been found and the records of the secret state police have been trawled through. Rebellion against the regime started in Benghazi and quickly spread to such an extent that the government was forced out of Tripoli and a National Transitional Council (NTC) established. The then rebels were supported both politically and militarily by external agencies. The UN recognised the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya while navies and various air forces bombed selected strategic targets of the regime in support of the rebels but crucially with international support to give what they were doing legitimacy.
In recent years there have been high profile trials against men deemed to have committed crimes against their people and who, once their government has fallen, have been arrested and tried at the international court based in The Hague. One such man was Slobodan Milosevic. He went from being the most powerful man in the former Yugoslavia with all the trappings that went with that to being put on trial for crimes against the Muslim community in that region. While few doubted his guilt, there was a huge desire to see him go through a legal process that Milosevic denied to thousands of others. He died during his trial.
Others deemed to have offended their own people have been overthrown using international force but have been tried by their own people. The most recent high profile case was Sudden Hussein. After his downfall and subsequent arrest, he was tried by an Iraqi court, sentenced to death and hanged – a punishment not meted out by the International Court at The Hague.
Over the years former high profile government ministers in Rwanda had been tried and imprisoned for their part in the genocide that took place there.
While it is easy to point the finger of blame at certain nations – usually classed as second world or third world nations – nations deemed to be ‘first world’ nations are not so keen to be labelled as ones that commit state crimes. They are usually the ones to give military support to a nation in turmoil and thus come out as the ‘good guys’ after a regime is toppled. France and the UK were the primary providers of air support for the Libyan rebels in 2011 and are credited with doing extreme damage to the war machine of Gaddafi effectively crippling it and making the task of the rebels easier. Many suspect and believe that the rebels – frequently portrayed by the media as being highly enthusiastic for their cause but chaotically organised – were given support at ground level by Special Forces operatives. Few have mourned the defeat of the Gaddafi regime and the joy of the people of Libya at the start of a new era is obvious to all. When the UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the French President, Nicolas Sakozy, visited Libya in September 2011 they were enthusiastically greeted by the Libyans who saw them as being the main helpers in their liberation.
The use of torture to gain information is internationally banned by the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The convention also explicitly forbids the use of such 'evidence' in legal proceedings. In December 2005, in a case Liberty intervened in, the House of Lords confirmed that the use of evidence derived from torture was unlawful, regardless of who carried out the torture. It held that the ban on torture and other forms of ill-treatment is absolute and cannot be opted out of. The use of ‘evidence’ that might have been obtained in violation of that ban is therefore unlawful.
The defeat of the Gaddafi regime also exposed a dark secret that certain agencies within the UK would have liked to have remained secret. Torture of arrested suspects within the UK is illegal. But documents retrieved from the headquarters of the ransacked Libyan state security police clearly show that very recently suspected terrorists arrested by UK forces in Afghanistan, for example, were sent by British agencies to Libya to be questioned about their activities. Many believe that these suspects were tortured to gain information and that this information was passed onto British security agencies. The process is known as extraordinary rendition and has been outlawed by the UK government. The former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who held the position at the time this was apparently happening has told The House of Commons in a very public statement that he had no knowledge that this was going on. Effectively, Straw said that it was going on behind his back. There are two issues here. Do we need information to guard us against possible terrorist attacks? The answer is clearly ‘yes’. Is it acceptable to use any means possible to get such information that could protect many innocent people? This is the more difficult of the two questions. If someone believes that the answer is also ‘yes’ then that is an admission by that person that in this case torture – outlawed in the UK – is an acceptable way to gain said information. The UK was found guilty of using torture against IRA suspects in Northern Ireland during the troubles when ‘white light’ was used.
France – also celebrated in Libya as a nation that supported the rebels – was also complicit when a Greenpeace boat – the ‘Rainbow Warrior’ - was sunk by French agents from their foreign intelligence services (the DGSE) in New Zealand killing one of the men on board, a photographer called Fernando Pereira. Again, the French government denied all knowledge that anything like this was planned but the episode did lead the resignation of the French Defence Minister Charles Hernu. This led to the next question – what else do these agencies of the government do without the knowledge of their governments? Which countries have such secret agencies that operate in such a cavalier manner outside of government control?
Is a nation that commits crimes against its people but is outside of the ‘first nation club’ more culpable that a nation in the ‘first nation club’ that also commits crimes? Is it simply a case of numbers? One dead crew member on the ‘Rainbow Warrior’ compared to nearly 1 million dead in the Rwanda genocide? Is upholding the law more important than acquiring information that could save many lives?
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex
"State Crimes". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2011. Web.