War crimes and the traps in sanctions

Mar 29, 2022
Vladimir Putin
If Putin remains President, or is replaced after losing the war, a crucial question is what happens to the central bank’s frozen assets. Image: Wikimedia Commons / www.kremlin.ru

Vladimir Putin would seem to fit the bill for war crimes in Ukraine. But what about the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq?

Australia has a torturous history of applying sanctions to “rogue” nations. Following the 1991-92 Gulf War, the Hawke government sent navy ships to help enforce a trade embargo on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. Official inquiries later reported that the privatised Australian Wheat Board paid $221 million in kickbacks to the Iraqi government between July 1999 and March 2003 to persuade it to buy most of its quota of imported wheat from AWB . The Department of Affairs and Trade failed to detect these large kickbacks, despite its responsibility to do so. In addition, the AWB provided the Australian Secret Intelligence Service with “cover” for its operatives involved in Iraq. The tightness of the overall sanctions had terrible consequences for the Iraqi population, particularly children. Conservative estimates put the number of children who starved to death at more than 100,000, while overall health standards fell along with per capita income. As a result, the international community decided to focus in future on “smart” sanctions targeted at ruling elites.

Although Putin’s vicious attack on Ukraine is clearly unjustified, the main sanctions supported by Australia are not “smart”. Instead, the US, Europe, Canada, Australia and others are conducting a brutal economic war on Russia that will render much of the population destitute, including Russians who have protested against the war. China shows scant sign of bailing Russia out.

The decision to freeze the Central Bank of Russia’s foreign reserves has created the harshest sanctions ever imposed foreign on a major country. The freeze violates a tradition of respecting the sovereign immunity of central banks. But this doesn’t bother political leaders who are determined to smash the Russian economy regardless of the suffering this will cause huge numbers of Russians who had no say in Putin’s decision to bring death and destruction to Ukraine.

Russia had about $630 billion in its central bank at the start of this year. Over $400 billion was held as foreign reserves which are now frozen. These frozen reserves can no longer be used to make payments for Russia’s overseas debt or trade, other than for narrow range of goods and services that are exempt. The central bank’s assets held in Russia will also become less valuable.

If Putin remains President, or is replaced after losing the war, a crucial question is what happens to the central bank’s frozen assets owned by Russia.

Will they be returned to Russia, particularly if he is no longer president?

The US recently set a precedent when it seized all the assets of Afghanistan’s central bank held in America. President Biden says half, $3.5 billion, will fund court cases brought by the alleged victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The other half will go to agencies to help alleviate the appalling hunger the US left behind after losing its 20 year war there. Giving $3.5 billion to American victims of terrorism can be seen as stealing other people’s money.

An Afghan-American activist Bilal Askaryar told the media in February that what Biden is doing amounts the to the “theft of public funds from an impoverished nation already on the brink of famine and starvation”.

Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute, who served as a marine in Afghanistan, says, “The idea that overnight the central bank reserves went from belonging to the Afghan people to being a transferable property of the United States is nothing short of colonial”. He said, “The 9/11 victims deserve justice, but not from the Afghan people who became pawns caught in the middle of the US-led ‘war on terror’ and an oppressive Taliban regime”. [The Taliban grew out of the Mujahideen, Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Ladin, who the US assembled to fight the Soviet forces supporting a secular communist government in Afghanistan between late 1979 and early 1989.] Scott Morrison says said he backs everything US is doing, but hasn’t explicitly supported the theft of Afghanistan’s assets.

Newsweek reported that in the first 24 days of the assault on Ukraine, Russia flew some 1,400 attack sorties and delivered almost 1,000 missiles. Newsweek acknowledged the US flew more sorties and delivered more weapons in the first day of the 2003 Iraq war. Many other media outlets and politicians don’t put the current figures in perspective.

Putin’s use of powerful vacuum (thermobaric) bombs, for example, is rightly condemned, but few mention that the US used the same type of weapon in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Russia is also using cluster bombs in Ukrainian cities, even though they scatter large numbers of bomblets that harm civilians, particularly children who pick them up. Unexploded cluster munitions can turn into de-facto landmines. Neither Russia nor the US has signed or ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

The US has used cluster bombs in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Grenada, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Russia has used cluster munitions in Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia and Syria. The USSR did so in Afghanistan.

Although Russia is bombing civil and military targets in Ukraine it is unlikely to reach the scale of the US bombing of Laos during the Indo-China war. This tiny Asian country posed no threat to the US. But the US dropped more bombs on it than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. The total included 270 million cluster bombs, about 75 million of which were left to main and kill after the war. The US has been slow to help reduce the danger.

President Biden says he considers Putin to be a war criminal. So do many people, including this writer. The difficulty is how to get him to trial while he lives in Russia. That could be achieved if he were overthrown, but that solution seems unlikely at present.

An initial stumbling block is the US does not recognise the International Criminal Court in the Hague where war crimes are normally prosecuted. The ICC is already gathering evidence for possible prosecution of war crimes in Ukraine. The US, like Russia, is not a party to the Rome Statute which created the ICC prosecutes. But 123 countries are, including Australia.

In 2020, President Trump said the ICC’s investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by US forces in Afghanistan posed a national security threat and issued executive order to sanction anyone who worked for the ICC. The then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a possible future Republican president, announced that new sanctions would apply against the ICC’s special prosecutor. The punishment is limited in scope. Basically it only allows allowing US bank accounts to be frozen and visas denied

However, illegally invading another country counts as a major war crime. Beth Van Schaack, the US ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, recently said, “There are doctrines under international law and domestic law that are able to reach all the way up the chain of command.” Vladimir Putin would seem to fit the bill. So would the illegal March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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