Bombing court of public opinion

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 18 May 2003


A CENTRAL item popularised in the US war on Iraq is the “weapon of mass destruction” (WMD), a term with a biased application since the beginning. 

The British press made an early reference to WMD in describing Nazi aircraft bombings during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. But there was no equivalent sense of malevolence in allied descriptions of USAAF and RAF bombings of Dresden and other German civilian centres they decimated in the 1940s. 

Similarly, the US nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cleaned of any possible negative image. They were given harm 

less nicknames like “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” while their purpose of killing and maiming civilians was claimed to be heroic in expediting the end of the Pacific War. 

Later during the Cold War, the focus of concern was the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers. The nuclear option signified the most destructive class of munitions per detonation, and WMDs were held to be synonymous with nuclear weapons. 

By 1991, the United Nations (as in UN Security Council Resolution 687) categorised biological and chemical weapons along with nuclear arms as WMD, as distinct from “conventional weapons.” In calling on Iraq but not Israel to relinquish WMD in the West Asian region, the WMD tag retained its partisan application. 

From then on, most US official definitions of WMDs rested on their lethal nature to injure or kill “a significant number of people.” Although the three classes of weapons (ABC, or atomic, biological and chemical) remained components of WMDs, there was nothing making “mass destruction” more specific than before. 

Over the years, the WMD concept took several interchangeable or overlapping terms: “weapons of terror,” “weapons of mass disruption,” “weapons of intimidation,” “weapons of catastrophic effect,” “weapons of indiscriminate destruction” and “weapons of indiscriminate effect.” Critics who saw through George W. Bush’s attempt to distract public attention from embarrassing details of his government also called Iraqi WMDs “weapons of mass distraction.” 

But the official definitions remained subjective and failed to provide the specific details required for serious classification of this group of weapons. Still, the basic idea remained distinguishing these weapons with terrible destructive power from more conventional battlefield weapons, because the indiscriminate nature of WMDs kills more civilians. 

However, there are chemical weapons experts like Gert Harigel, and senior US figures like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who reject the inclusion of chemical weapons as WMD. Scientists who work on biological and chemical warfare may also refuse to link their work with WMDs, for reasons of research funding or professional esteem. 

Technically any weapon, even a bundle of hand grenades with sufficient aggregate destructive force, can qualify as a WMD. This is the kind of approach taken by the FBI towards WMDs. 

History shows that the US is the foremost state power engaged in designing, producing and using WMDs. The US also remains ahead of others in developing a new generation of WMDs including battlefield (“low-yield”) nuclear weapons, HPM (High Power Microwave) or E-bombs, depleted uranium (e.g. “bunker buster”) bombs and fragmentation or incendiary cluster bombs. 

Since double standards have been applied consistently with no foreseeable change in US policy, they are likely to remain. The experiences of – among others – Imperial Japan, Vietnamese nationalism, Taliban Afghanistan and al-Qaeda suspects held captive in Guantanamo Bay are testimony to such realities. 

Iraq has been pounded repeatedly with the most destructive weapons in modern times. In the process civilian centres and buildings have been destroyed, foreign diplomatic convoys shot at, journalists killed, homes devastated, families attacked and a nation terrorised. 

Among the complaints piling up against the US invasion and occupying force are encouragement of looting and random attacks, including the killing of women, children and the aged by indiscriminate shooting and bombing of civilian areas. There are even reports of a US colonel instructing his soldiers to shoot at ambulances. 

One of the complaints concerns the use of cluster bombs, a de facto WMD with such typically indiscriminate killing power as to serve as an ideal weapon against civilians. According to witnesses, detonation of a cluster bomb resembles the explosion of a modest-sized nuclear weapon. 

The use of cluster bombs in the US invasion of Iraq this year has been cited as a war crime by survivors and campaigners. However, the use of double standards is key. 

So when 17 Iraqis and two Jordanians engaged Belgian lawyer Jan Fermon to file a war crimes suit against two US military commanders on Wednesday, everyone knew the case had little chance of being heard, let alone reach any conviction. The Belgian Parliament had already taken care of any inconvenient universal standards by inducing double standards in an amendment. 

More recently, when cases were filed against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well as former US president George Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Belgian government acted effectively in their favour. An amendment was made to the law last month to refer such cases back to their home countries, unless these countries happened not to be democracies. 

The angry US reaction to the suit by Fermon just four days ago was swift: Belgium was warned that its international status could be affected unless its law is restricted. Thus Brussels, as headquarters of Nato and the European Union, must compromise its law with double standards – or else. 

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld boasted the use of a new kind of weapon against Iraq recently: the thermobaric bomb, which kills people without damaging property. With his announcement coming on the same day the Belgian lawsuit was filed, there is little doubt about which would win over which – the courts or the bombs. 

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