Those seeking to bring war crimes charges against Donald Rumsfeld and other top US officials in a German court can no longer be ignored–indeed, the legal action now unfolding in Germany has received extensive coverage not only in The Nation but also in mainstream media.
But at least one critic of the case has responded with ridicule.
The CNN show Anderson Cooper 360 featured a November 14 report by correspondent Brian Todd on the complaint being brought before the German federal court by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and its German and international allies on behalf of victims of torture at US detention facilities. The report included interviews with CCR’s Vincent Warren, former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of US prisons in Iraq at the time of the initial Abu Ghraib torture incidents, Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman and Duke University Law School professor Scott Sillman. Fair enough.
But then CNN correspondent John King asked the network’s senior legal analyst (and New Yorker legal writer) Jeffrey Toobin to comment on the case. King opened the interview asking whether the case was a serious lawsuit or a stunt. Toobin was the only commentator in this segment, and his message was simple. “I mean, this is a totally ridiculous lawsuit,” Toobin said. “This is a request of the German government by an American left-wing public-interest law firm,” Toobin said, referring to the Center for Constitutional Rights. “That is all this is. This is not the German government trying to get Don Rumsfeld.”
Toobin explained that Germany has an unusual and up-to-now untested law that allows individuals–in this case CCR activists–to ask a prosecutor to bring charges against Rumsfeld and others for crimes committed beyond German borders.
“They do have this unusual law in Germany that gives them jurisdiction around the whole world, but they have never used it,” Toobin explained. “The only slightly analogous situation is that a Spanish court, a Spanish investigator a few years ago filed a lawsuit against Augusto Pinochet…saying that he had masterminded the torture of Spanish civilians. And Pinochet was actually held in custody in London, pursuant to that lawsuit, until they found he was too old and senile to be able to stand trial.”
The dismissive tone of Toobin’s commentary effectively obscured the legal basis on which the case is being brought–courts in Germany, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Britain and Canada all have universal jurisdiction laws allowing prosecution of perpetrators of the most serious human rights abuses, such as torture and other war crimes.
Rather than being a farfetched idea from the American left, the principle of universal jurisdiction under which Rumsfeld and his potential co-defendants would be charged is enshrined in Article 49 of the First Geneva Convention: “Each High Contracting Party shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches [of the Geneva Convention,] and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts.”