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Senate Vote Advances President's Effort to Kill War Crimes Act | The Nation

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Senate Vote Advances President's Effort to Kill War Crimes Act

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6. Preserving the War Crimes Act is part of reasserting the rule of law in America.

About the Author

Brendan Smith
Brendan Smith is an journalist, oysterman and labor activist. He is co-founder of Global Labor Strategies, a consulting...
Jeremy Brecher
Jeremy Brecher’s new book Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action, just published by Paradigm...

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The War Crimes Act has been a central focus of the Bush Administration's scorn for all Constitutional limits on the power of the President and the executive branch. It was the idea that the President could by fiat declare US and international law null and void that animated the Gonzales torture memo. It was this denial of constitutional limits that the Supreme Court resoundingly rebuked in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. A rebuff to the Bush Administration's attack on the War Crimes Act is a reassertion of those constitutional limits.

The War Crimes Act can be a bridge to a more just and peaceful world. The incorporation of the Geneva Conventions' prohibitions on war crimes into national law affirms America's commitment to international law. It embodies an implementation of the global heritage of the Nuremberg trials, the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions. It embeds that tradition within our own national law.

In the wake of World War II, Justice Robert Jackson, chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, observed that "the ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to law." Making statesmen responsible to law is what the War Crimes Act is all about.

Defending the Law

The arguments for preserving the War Crimes Act are conclusive (except perhaps to those who might face criminal prosecution under them). Indeed, the Administration's decision to gut the War Crimes Act is a gift to those who want to see American statesmen held accountable to national and international law. It suggests that the Bush Administration itself recognizes the criminality of many of its actions. And it shows in the sharpest relief why the War Crimes Act is needed.

But, at least for the moment, Bush's Republican allies still control both houses of Congress; they are in a position to slip a repeal of the War Crimes Act into any piece of legislation they choose. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, senior member of the House Committee for Homeland Security, told The Nation, "The Bush Administration and the GOP leadership in Congress is trying to quietly excuse and even codify cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners in US custody, at secret CIA prisons abroad and even the abhorrent practice of extraordinary rendition [the outsourcing of torture and other cruel treatment to other countries]."

While the Administration has been lining up its ducks, the campaign to save the War Crimes Act has just begun. The advocacy group Just Foreign Policy has started an online campaign to save the War Crimes Act. "This is not an obscure point in the law. What's at stake here is whether, for example, the abuses of prisoners by sexual humiliation that shocked us at Abu Ghraib are clearly illegal under US law," national coordinator Robert Naiman observes. "If we found these actions outrageous, we are obligated to tell our members of Congress to protect the law that bans them."

Markey adds, "Every American citizen should call the White House and their members of Congress because these changes being made in the dead of night could be the green light for other countries that capture American troops to treat them cruelly or torture them."

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