The wars in Iraq and Ukraine may differ, but both speak to the tragic realities of war. They also make a strong case for strengthening the rule of law instead of undermining it through flimsy pretexts for endless militarism.
Like the 2003 U.S. war in Iraq, which marked its 20th anniversary this March, Russia’s year-long war on Ukraine is an act of aggression in blatant violation of international law.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has sought to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for abuses committed during the war. On March 17, it issued an arrest warrant for Putin for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Although Russia is not a member of the ICC, human rights groups hailed the warrant as a step towards justice.
President Biden called the court’s decision “justified,” but acknowledged that the U.S. isn’t a member of the ICC either. It is important to see the U.S. support justice and accountability for Ukrainian victims. This should be extended to all victims of wars, including in Iraq.
That illegal war killed upwards of a million Iraqis, displaced over 9 million from their homes, and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Terrorist groups, including ISIL, emerged in response to the invasion and have continued to unleash violence. Political divisions plague the country, Iraqis continue to struggle, and the U.S. has troops there even today.
The glaring lack of accountability for our government’s actions in Iraq compromises America’s authority to meaningfully promote human rights, justice, and the rule of law elsewhere — including in Ukraine.
The invasion of Iraq directly contravened the UN Charter’s articles prohibiting military intervention and the use of force in international relations. The U.S. sent 130,000 troops to overthrow Iraq’s government, without UN authorization and under the fraudulent pretext that the country was amassing weapons of mass destruction.
Widespread human rights violations emerged from the invasion and occupation. Among them, tens of thousands of Iraqis were arrested and detained by U.S. personnel. The majority were innocent civilians and many were abused.
Photos from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in April 2004 revealed horrifying, unlawful acts of torture. Naked men were leashed like dogs, electrocuted, and beaten. This barbarism was part of a broader post 9/11 torture network that spanned secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Europe to the notorious U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Years later, WikiLeaks published classified U.S. government records that included evidence of other war crimes in Iraq. In the “Collateral Murder” video published in April 2010, shocking footage from 2007 showed U.S. helicopter gunships killing civilians and two Reuters journalists in Baghdad.
No U.S. government officials who created, implemented, or oversaw torture have been held accountable. They have not received court indictments, arrest warrants, sanctions, or professional ramifications. Justice, including in the form of reparations, still evades the survivors of torture at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqis harmed by the war.
And no high-level U.S. officials faced consequences for waging a war that killed nearly 4,600 U.S. soldiers and that continues to cost our government trillions.
The only ones to face charges over the WikiLeaks revelations were the people who publicized them. Former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who provided hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic records to WikiLeaks in 2010, was prosecuted, imprisoned, and later pardoned by President Obama. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who published the evidence that helped uncover illegal state conduct, faces up to 175 years in a U.S. maximum security prison should he lose his ongoing extradition fight.
If the U.S. is serious about enforcing international law, it must right its own wrongs in Iraq and elsewhere.
Joining the ICC would be a positive step.
On previous occasions, the U.S. has undermined the court, such as by derailing its investigation of U.S. crimes committed in Afghanistan. More recently, Pentagon officials stymied efforts to share U.S.-gathered evidence of Russian crimes with the ICC due to reported concerns that it could one day set the stage for prosecuting Americans.
This highly selective “rule of law” contradicts its very definition and breeds a culture of impunity. As Russia’s actions demonstrate, these double standards weaken the rule of law and human rights around the globe.
A long overdue reckoning with Iraq is also important for Americans who were lied into this devastating war in order to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.
In the meantime, Iraqis still wait for accountability. Like all victims of war, they deserve justice.
No one is above the law.