Did Ariel Sharon get a pass on War Crimes because he was White?

(By Juan Cole)

It is shameful that Vice President Joe Biden should be attending the funeral of Ariel Sharon today, given that the former Israeli prime minister was clearly guilty of a host of war crimes. Much Mideast instability must be laid at his feet. Since a pattern of war crimes comes to equate to crimes against humanity, it is possible that had he been tried, it is the latter charge that would have been considered appropriate.

It would be exactly like sending Vice President Biden to attend the funeral of Apartheid PM and icon P.W. Botha (d. 2006).
It would be exactly like sending Vice President Biden to attend the funeral of Apartheid PM and icon P.W. Botha (d. 2006). He was also “controversial” as the US press is calling Sharon (“controversial” is apparently code for “committed war crimes.”) He also fought for his country as he understood it (i.e. for Afrikaner interests, as Sharon championed those of Israeli Jews). Botha ordered cross-border military actions in Angola and elsewhere, fighting the “terrorism” of African liberation movements. He kept Nelson Mandela imprisoned as a communist and a terrorist. Botha opposed black majority rule and championed all white townships, just as Sharon promoted Jewish-only colonies in the Palestinian West Bank.

The question is why Sharon still receives international honors when many other leaders guilty of similar violations of international law have been shunned or even indicted at the International Criminal Court.

An Ethiopian leader, for instance, accused the International Criminal Court in the Hague of being on an “African safari,” maintaining that 99% of the leaders indicted for war crimes by the ICC have been from Africa.

President Obama did not visit Kenya on his trip to Africa precisely because President Uhuru Kenyatta has been indicted at the ICC.

The Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court came into force in 2002. The ICC has its seat at the Hague in the Netherlands, but can meet anywhere. Some 122 countries have become party to the court.

Conspicuously, the United States, Israel and the Sudan are among the few countries to simply blow the Rome Statute off altogether, announcing that they won’t be party to the ICC. Since the court can indict and convict on war crimes, it seems clear that refusal to join it is a sign of intent to commit them and a desire for impunity.

The ICC cannot take for the most part take up the case of a leader whose country has not signed and ratified the statute. The only mechanism whereby the court can intervene in non-signatory states is if the United Nations Security Council forwards the individual to the ICC. That is what was done in the case of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.

Syria, for instance, is not a signatory. Its leader, Bashar al-Assad, is guilty of so many war crimes that he certainly could be convicted of crimes against humanity if he were tried. But the UNSC cannot forward his case to the ICC because Russia and China veto any such step.

Ariel Sharon, as I said above, could also have been so convicted. But just as Russia and China run interference for al-Assad, so the United States would never have allowed the UNSC to forward Sharon’s case to the ICC. Indeed, that goes for any Israeli leader guilty of war crimes.

So the usual hasbara propaganda talking point, that Israel is being held to a higher standard than “the Arabs” does not apply here. It is the opposite. Gaddafi was sent to the ICC but Sharon was not. My guess is that Sharon was responsible for more wrongful deaths than was Gaddafi.

Some courts in some countries have occasionally claimed universal jurisdiction. For a while in the 1990s and early zeroes Belgium had such a law. It was repealed in 2003 because the legislature perceived it as roiling Belgian diplomacy. During the period when it was in effect, the law was deployed against Chadian dictator Hissene Habre and against Ariel Sharon. The Sharon case was quashed by the International Court of justice, which ruled that former high leaders cannot be tried by courts of another country. They can only be tried by the ICC itself or by courts in their own country. A Belgian appeals court concurred. In contrast, Habre, whose case continued after the repeal of universal jurisdiction, was convicted. He is under house arrest in Senegal and Belgium has repeatedly sought his extradition.

So why was the Sharon case quashed in Belgium but the Habre case resulted in a conviction? Why was Gaddafi indicted by the ICC but Sharon could not be?

Many African intellectuals have been disturbed by the apparent bias toward prosecuting African leaders for war crimes in international fora, whereas leaders guilty of similar crimes (we are not talking necessarily magnitude) in other parts of the world have skated.

Ariel Sharon would appear to be exhibit A for the justice of their case. There is a clear double standard (which however is also visible with regard to al-Assad).

In the end, however, the issue at the UNSC doesn’t seem to be race, as the African critics sometimes suggest. (Whether race played a role in the different outcomes of the Habre and Sharon cases in Belgium I do not know.) It is rather a matter of whether a country is perceived as geopolitically useful by the UNSC victors of WW II. Syria is useful for Russia and China, Israel for the US.

It is worth noting that during the Iran-Iraq War, the US also protected Saddam Hussein of Iraq from any UNSC inquiry into his use of chemical weapons at the front with Iran. The Reagan administration wanted the Iran of the anti-American Ayatollah Khomeini contained, and Saddam was being useful in that endeavor. Chemical weapons use was secondary.

Presumably if some Black Africa country emerged as important for American military and political power, Washington would run interference for its leader, too.

What should be clear is that the world cannot afford these double standards, either for Israel or for Syria. If we are to emerge from the jungle, we must have a rule of law in international affairs as well as domestically. Impunity for war criminals only encourages war crimes.


Related video:

Euronews reported last summer on African Union slamming of ICC ‘race hunting’

24 Responses

  1. The title of this post is rhetorical. Special treatment came not because he was white but because he had the clout to get away with it. He was a True Believer empowered, backed, and on a mission from God. This is seriously powerful and dangerous stuff when a guy like him is supported by like-minded people who had (and have) a ring through the nose of those who might conceivably hold them to the standards of the rest of the world.

    It’s not to be inflammatory but rather to try to look squarely at the underlying problem, that people need to think about the deference they give to a nation state that considers itself God’s Chosen People, with all the rights and privileges associated.

  2. You are absolutely right, Juan Cole, the US has consistently shown indifference to the many human rights violations committed by many of Israel’s leaders. If this was Arafat who had been found personally responsible for the massacre at Shabra and Shatila, or had a Palestinian village like Qibya attacked by his
    men, in which scores of unarmed men, women and little children were ruthlessly killed, synagogues, homes and schools destroyed, would the US have pretended to be outraged and allowed the war criminal to get away? The double standards are sickening.
    By now we should have stopped the aid, and ordered Israel to stop acting like an out of control thug, if they want to continue sponging off US taxpayers. We hold the upper hand in this, and yet, our leaders have their chains yanked by Israel through AIPAC.

    • The NSA had claimed to have wire intercepts confirming that Arafat had ordered P.L.O. military chief Khalil Wazir to kill diplomatic hostages from Sudan in 1974 which included U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel.

      Arafat was, of course, never prosecuted.

        • To your point Sharon was found personally responsible for Sabra and Shatila, by an Israeli investigation (Kahan). Still, he got away, and went on to bulldoze his way into being PM.

  3. Living in The Netherlands, should I feel uncomfortable with the The Hague Invasion Act, enacted by US Congress in 2002? Both the International Court of Justice (Israeli security separation wall) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) are located nearby. The ICC (permanent tribunal) is not just for African leaders (Charles Taylor), but the basic concept is used in separate tribunals for Lockerbie Bombing, Rwanda massacre, Hariri assassination and the very broad Yugoslavia Tribunal. Fortunately the UN-OPCW is in the news and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

    The International Court of Justice, located in the Peace Palace funded by the Carnegie Foundation, celebrating its 100 year history in 2013.

  4. Mr. Cole, are you serious? Would our fist black POTUS be sending his vice-president to the funeral of any other “white” war criminal if he wasn’t also the former leader of Israel?

    Sharon’s attack on the Palestinian camps in Lebanon was not a racial crime. If you accuse someone of being a “white” war criminal then they must have committed crimes based on the race of the victims?



    Did Ronald Reagan back Saddam Hussein because he thought Saddam was “whiter” than the Ayatollah? After all, how many non-white governments use chemical weapons?

    Did The Raygun invite Michael Jackson to the White House because he tried to “whiten” his skin?

  5. Some white guys have ended up in the Hague, notably people like Ratko Mladic and others after the wars in the former Yugoslavia. What the people who do end up there have in common is that they were on the losing side.

  6. White isn’t the right word, Juan, as you surely know. I doubt if Obama would attend Radovan Karadzic’s funeral, either, and he’s white as rice.

    But none of those African countries, or the Serbs, have a sufficiently powerful lobby in Washington, applying whitewash to their war crimes.

  7. Thanks Juan, we need this pointed out much more often. I sometimes wonder if America knows what the double standard of Justice is. As our politicians use the double standard to hide behind to protect their almighty love for power we will never hear it from them.
    I hope Biden made his trip just to protect the Iran negotiation.

  8. Sharon was concerned that he might be hauled of the criminal court in Belgium. Some allege that he had Elie Hobeika, commander of the Christian Phalanges that entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, taken out with a car bomb in 2002.

    • Agreed.

      NATO also threatened to have their headquaters removed from Brussels if the Sharon prosecution went forward.

      The Belgian court system eventually dismissed the charges so the whole political issue was mooted.

  9. ” If we are to emerge from the jungle, we must have a rule of law in international affairs as well as domestically. Impunity for war criminals only encourages war crimes.”

    Very true, but unfortunately in the minds of too many people in power that is, as a former attorney general might have put it, a quaint idea.

  10. “It is shameful that Vice President Joe Biden should be attending the funeral of Ariel Sharon today, …”

    That is part of the (unwritten) bargain such political courtesans have with the Israel lobby.

  11. Professor Cole is engaging in political correctness asserting that a white dude automatically gets a free Get Out Of Jail card when he plays Monopoly. Commentators have of course mentioned the usual suspects, such as Ratko Mladic and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, as prime candidates for the nasty white dude award of the year. But that’s rather pedestrian. We have so many home grown criminals right here that exceeds their war crimes. How about LBJ, Tricky Dick or Robert McNamara when it comes to the Vietnam War? Or for that matter even JFK, our fallen King of Camelot? He signed an executive order on November 21, 1961, National Security Action Memorandum #111. It authorized the use of napalm and Agent Orange in The Republic of South Vietnam. And how about the war crimes President Barack Obama has committed in office with his illegal drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somali, etc,? He has violated the national sovereignty of more nations than Dick Tricky even ever fantasized about in his wildest alcoholic stupors?And there’s
    Nixon’s partner in crime and main bro,’ Henry the K, who was able to leap tall international covenants in a single bound. He got the Nobel Prize for Peace! Though his co-recipient, Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam, had the honesty to refuse the award. And after the Second World War when the U.S. and our allies tried Nazis as war criminals, they still gave themselves free Get Out Of Jail card when it came to the allied bombing with white phosphorus ordnance they dropped over Germany and Japan. These campaigns killed many more civilians than even the atomic bombs did on Hiroshima and Nagasaki including the survivors who died of radiation poisoning. Yet we still used willy peter rounds in the Siege of Fallujah when American and British troops finally recaptured the city in November and December of 2004. No, professor, Ariel Sharon is a definitely a real slacker when it comes to our own war criminals inside the beltway bubble. We grow them faster than a gardener does orchids in a hothouse. The ugly truth is the victor dictates what is a war crime is to the vanquished. General Curtis LeMay made that observation to a young officer working under him, Colonel Robert McNamara,. Curtis said that if the Japanese somehow could have won the war, he would be hanging from a noose instead of Tojo. And in Vietnam as a medical corpsman, I did dressing changes on a few, I emphasize that adjective “few,” wounded grunts who had obviously committed war crimes when they opened up to me and casually talked about what they did to the “gooks.” There’s really no morality in this world. It’s just another big con for the marks.

    • Very well said, again, George. I will, however, take one exception. There is some morality in the world. It just has a tough time making progress against such overwhelming odds.

    • “And after the Second World War when the U.S. and our allies tried Nazis as war criminals, they still gave themselves free Get Out Of Jail card…”

      In a phase of honest assessment, the Allied lawyers laying the groundwork for the Nuremberg Trials compiled a list of war crimes against the Nazis. London and Washington returned the lists with many items deleted because American and British forces had committed the same crimes.

    • Mr. Hoffman says:

      “Professor Cole is engaging in political correctness asserting that a white dude automatically gets a free Get Out Of Jail card when he plays Monopoly.”

      Political correctness is not a term of art. And Dr. Cole made no “automaticity” argument either.

      Irrespective of the accuracy of what you say he asserted, you seem not to have lingered over his conclusion: “If we are to emerge from the jungle, we must have a rule of law in international affairs as well as domestically. Impunity for war criminals only encourages war crimes.”

      How can you differ with that conclusion when it seems to agree with yours, i.e., that white war criminals do indeed seem escape prosecution, MacNamara, Nixon and LBJ being your examples?

      All you’ve done is to add American whites to the list which supports the Cole thesis.

      Your argument boils down to this: “You can’t criticize Sharon’s crimes because he is a white guy and other white guys have gotten away with it without such criticism.

      That’s incorrect because the Americans you name were in fact accused almost daily of being war criminals for many years. That they escaped prosecution is a different matter. So far, so have all the Israelis and you can bet that they will be looking for clemency in any settlement deal.

      By the way, there has always got to be a time when we decide to behave ourselves and enforce International Criminal Law. How about NOW? The Middle-East is the crisis du jour. And a determination to do it might well cool-off to ardor of some of the players.

  12. Israel has a powerful patron and so does Syria. Qaddafi did not have a patron and neither do most African countries today – though during the Cold War many brutal dictators flourished: from Idi Amin and Mobutu to various Communist warlords. South Africa’s apartheid regime did not fall until years after the USSR did: i.e. when anti-communism was no longer a valid excuse to defend a regime that most people considered repugnant. They became an embarrassment (as Qaddafi did, who’d otherwise been very well-behaved) and paid the price for that.

    Race has got nothing to do with it. Sharon could have been an Ethiopian Jew with dark skin and nappy hair and he’d still have been safe. This is because the US is deeply invested in Israel regardless of who’s in charge and will not allow any judgment of the country, its policies, or those who plan and/or execute them.

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