Human rights abuses overseen and committed by a superpower’s agents are ignored while those done by more vulnerable enemies are outrages containing inestimable propaganda value.
Such a double standard is apparent in the treatments of Serbian bogeyman Slobodan Milosovic and jet-setting elder statesman Henry Kissinger. The former is reviled as a modern-day Hitler – and whose trial in the Hague remains a US foreign policy priority – while the latter is feted by the national power elite and offered regular space in America’s leading newspapers.
That most Americans do not recognize Henry Kissinger as a war criminal, but rather as a very smart if conniving former diplomat, is merely testimony to the extent to which the US media has been complicit in the maintenance of this double-standard.
Christopher Hitchens is not so bold as to think that he can single-handedly effect the practice of this ageless routine. Indeed, he traces its heavy roots back to ancient times through the words of the Greek philosopher Anarchisis, for whom “laws were like cobwebs; strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong."
But nor does he allow the long and ignomious history of this double-standard to get in the way of the necessary business of imagining its demise. Hitchens offers sound reasons for singling out Kissinger from all other possible targets for war crimes prosecution. First, the list of crimes is a long one, and involve egregious violations of the Geneva accords, as well as of national and international civil law.
Second, these violations are isolated from institutional and systemic forces that can complicate the prosecution of individuals for war crimes. Third, Kissinger is not only alive, but continues to profit handsomely from these crimes. Fourth, almost all of Kissinger’s former dictator friends have been duly disgraced or arrested, and thus his lone impunity calls out for a final reckoning, if only for the sake of a neat historical and moral symmetry.
Some of the charges made by Hitchens are old news; some are updated here with fresh evidence. The major charges include: Kissinger helped sabotage the 1968 Paris peace talks with North Vietnam to help elect Nixon and then proceeded to napalm unknown thousands of people to death and expand the war to Laos and Cambodia; Kissinger urged Ford in invade – and drop a 15,000 pound bomb on – a Cambodian island even though he knew the US captives had already been released;
Kissinger micro-managed the murder of Chilean generals who stood in the way of Pinochet’s US sponsored coup; Kissinger gave the green light and supplied the weapons for Indonesia’s 200,000 body bag invasion of East Timor; Kissinger colluded in a kidnap and murder plot of Greek emigre journalist Elias P. Demetracopoulos; Kissinger lent assistance to deadly coups in Cyprus and Bangledesh.
All told, the charges range from kidnapping, assassination, mass slaughter and “two-track” diplomacy that brazenly subverted American democracy. The victims range from prominent American citizens to unknown peasants. And they are many. Of course Henry Kissinger won’t be dragged into court. But this doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be.
A high-profile outing accompanied by legal action would put meat on the bones of American pieties about human rights, as well as remind Americans of the dangers of unaccountable power and American lawlessness in international relations.
As Hitchens notes, until a sort of Truth and Reconciliation committee is established on US soil, trials of men like Kissinger could serve a useful purpose in forcing the country to come to terms with its Cold War past.
For this is a past not nearly as heroic as the triumphalist chorus of the 90s would have us believe. It was a period marked by crimes at least as great as the virtues we claimed to be fighting for: subversions, assassinations, and – call it what you will – the calculated murder of millions of civilians in Indochina.
Expiation for this history is not possible, but anything that mitigates the chance of its repetition should be welcomed. The capture and trial of Henry Kissinger would be a good place to start.