By Rahnuma Ahmed
Because of its power and global interests U.S. leaders have committed crimes as a matter of course and structural necessity. A strict application of international law would … have given every U.S. president of the past 50 years Nuremberg treatment.
Edward S Herman, American professor of economics
The crimes of the U.S. throughout the world have been systematic, constant, clinical, remorseless, and fully documented but nobody talks about them.
Harold Pinter, English dramatist
WHEN I read of the US ambassador at-large for war crimes Stephen Rapp’s impending visit to Bangladesh, to offer advice to the government on how to try Bangladeshi war criminals of 1971, I was reminded of a personal experience more than a decade ago.
Jahangirnagar University, where I was teaching, was in turmoil. A thousand-plus students, mostly women, spilled out of classrooms to protest against campus rape. Demonstrations. Rallies. Sit-ins. ‘We want an independent enquiry. Punish the rapist!’ they chanted, as they pointed fingers at Jasimuddin Manik, general secretary of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, JU unit.
Two, maybe three days later, the Chhatra League, too, was out in full force. Led by Manik, I watched the procession wind its way along the corridors, march down brick-laden pathways. ‘We want justice. Punish the rapist!’
It’s known as deceit.
One must admit, it was cleverly done. At the very outset of his press conference on January 13, Rapp spoke of his personal ‘disappointment’ in his ‘own government’, in the ‘highest [American] leadership during that period’ when ‘enormous crimes’ had been committed, then quickly shifted, in the same breath, to expressing ‘pride in the leadership’ exercised by late Senator Edward Kennedy, and the role of Archer Blood, US Consul General in Dhaka, in providing ‘accurate reports of the atrocities.’ Implying, thereby, that one absolved the other.
No mention of Henry Kissinger, the then national security adviser, who is, in the words of investigative journalist Wayne Madsen, the ‘most prominent unindicted war criminal roaming around today.’ Kissinger had, in late April 1971, at the very height of mass murder—at least ten thousand civilians had been slaughtered in the first 3 days, the following 9 months had been marked by mass rape, genocide and dismemberment, the eventual civilian death toll put as high as 3 million—sent a message to Pakistan’s ruler General Yahya Khan, thanking him for his ‘delicacy and tact’ (Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, 2002).
No mention of Archer Blood’s immediate recall from his post either, for having been the senior signatory to the April 6, 1971 cable from Dhaka. Nor, heaven forbid, of the fact that Blood reported not so much the genocide, as the US government’s ‘complicity’ in the genocide. ‘Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities…[instead it has bent] over backwards to placate the West Pak[istan] dominated government…Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankrupt, ironically at a time when the USSR sent President Yahya Khan a message defending democracy… We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected.’
Nor any mention of the punishment meted out to the cable’s other signatories. The cable, ‘the most public and the most strongly worded demarche from State Department servants to the State Department that has ever been recorded’ was signed by 20 members of the US diplomatic team here and, by a further 9 senior officers in the South Asia division in Washington. Being a vengeful man, Kissinger ‘downgraded’ them after becoming the secretary of state in 1973.
But there was vengeance in store for newly-independent Bangladesh, and the founder of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, too. Having received bad press for his handling of the Bangladesh crisis which reportedly spoiled his finest hour in China—overtures to China, dubbed `ping pong diplomacy’ by some, in which Pakistan, America’s close ally was the intermediary—Kissinger’s conduct toward Bangladesh and Sheikh Mujib was marked by ‘unremitting hostility and contempt.’
He ‘snubbed’ Mujib on several occasions when the latter visited the US as head of state in 1974, boycotted the 15-minute meeting Mujib was allowed by president Gerald Ford, and opposed Mujib’s main request for emergency grain shipments and help with debt relief. ‘Since they had the audacity to become independent of one of my client states, they will damn well float on their own for a while’ (Roger Morris, Kissinger’s then aide). And, after an 8-hour stop in Bangladesh in November 1974—during which Kissinger, in his 3-minute press conference had refused to say why he had sent the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal in December 1971—the ‘two track’ concept was set into operation. It meant that intelligence officers and military attaches could go behind the back and over the head of US ambassadors, they could run ‘their own show’ with ‘secret authorizations from Washington’ (Lawrence Lifschultz).
A few weeks after Kissinger’s departure, a faction at the US Embassy in Dhaka began covertly meeting with a group of Bangladeshi officers who were planning a coup against Sheikh Mujib. The coup of August 15, 1975 led to the assassination of Mujib and 40 family members; it led to the bayoneting to death of his closest former political associates a few months later (Hitchens).
Kissinger is still influential, as evidenced by his having been invited as the keynote speaker in a September 2010 conference on Indo-China hosted by the US State department. So, are his policies: the recent coup attempt in Ecuador (September 2010) harkens back to Kissinger’s policy in Latin America which saw the overthrow and murder of Chile’s popularly elected president Salvador Allende. Observers draw parallels between Vietnam-Cambodia and Afghanistan-Pakistan; Kissinger had authorised the war to bleed over from Vietnam into Cambodia in the 1970s, similar to how one sees the war bleed over from Afghanistan into Pakistan today. Fred Branfman reminds us of Kissinger’s criminal record in Indo-China, ‘During [his time as National Security Adviser for Richard Nixon and Secretary of State for Gerald Ford, from January 1969 until the fall of Saigon in April 1975] Kissinger needlessly prolonged U.S. war-making in which 20,853 Americans were killed and an officially U.S.-estimated 7,860,013 Indochinese were murdered, maimed or made homeless…’ (Huffington Post, September 28, 2010). So, is it not pertinent to ask the US ambassador-at-large when he speaks of his ‘disappointment’ in his government’s role during 1971, but are you are `less’ disappointed today?
Today, when things are so much worse? When the magnitude of USA’s ‘full spectrum dominance policy’ ravages Iraq and Afghanistan, when it bleeds over into Pakistan? When the ‘extraordinary level of deceit’ (Brian Willson) which masks its brazen nature is beyond all norms of human decency. When men of the moral calibre of Archer Blood are no longer to be seen. Neither in the US Embassy in Dhaka, or any place else.
Rapp’s credentials as war crimes envoy rest to a large extent on having served at the UN tribunal dealing with genocide in Rwanda; in 2001, he led the prosecution in the Media Trial against leaders of RTLM radio station and Kangura newspaper for inciting the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which some 800,000 Rwandans were killed.
What is less known is that it was not ‘traditional tribal rivalries’ which led to the genocide, but international capital, assisted by the US government and the IMF, which ‘systematically reduced Rwanda to a state of poverty, famine and genocidal civil war.’ Until the late 1980s, Rwanda had a reasonably healthy economy, half devoted to agriculture, the other half to export production of coffee, a major source of public finances. Population growth was negligible (3.2%), inflation was low, food imports minimal. The first blow which eventually destroyed the Rwandan economy was struck when large US coffee traders persuaded Washington to undermine the international quota system. Coffee prices to Rwandan producers soon fell by 50 per cent while retail coffee prices remained constant; the difference was pocketed by powerful international traders. In 1990, the Rwandan government, in need of outside financing, turned to the IMF; the latter obliged by setting conditions: trade liberalisation, currency devaluation, limitations on the price to be paid to coffee growers. Inflation followed as growers could no longer recover their costs; in 1992, desperate coffee-growers uprooted 300,000 coffee trees. ‘The economy collapsed along with government finances. Society disintegrated and civil war arose out of chaos.’ (See Richard Moore’s discussion of Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalization of Poverty and the New World Order, 2002).
The ‘traditional tribal rivalries’ story endlessly regurgitated on the western media, which has become commonsense in the west, overlooks the Rwandan government’s accusation that France played an ‘active role’ in the 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 people were killed. That France was aware of the ‘preparations for the genocide’, that it ‘helped train the ethnic Hutu militia perpetrators.’ An independent Rwandan commission has named 33 senior French military and political figures including former president Francois Mitterand, the then prime minister Edouard Balladour, two others who later became prime ministers Alain Juppe, Dominique de Villepin. Rwanda insists, they should be prosecuted.
French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s response? On his visit to Rwanda, the first-ever by a French head of state in a quarter of century, Sarkozy said, the international community, including France had suffered from ‘a kind of blindness’. But he refused to apologise—not that it would have brought back the dead, or helped restore the limbs of those maimed—for France’s ‘political errors’.
At a press briefing in Geneva, in January 2010, ambassador Rapp had claimed that the United States had been ‘a leader [in international justice] from the time of Nuremburg.’
But surely evasiveness, deceit, lies and blindness, are not the qualities of leadership?
As Bangladesh struggles to bring to justice war criminals of 1971, there are many more, and far beyond, who should be tried. For, as Harold Pinter had said, the documentation exists. We just need to begin talking about it. Loudly.Show