On Criminality

“The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept”

Thucydides

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished who kill not in large companies, and to the sound of trumpets; it is the rule.”

Voltaire

Criminality in our world is treated with pretty arbitrary standards. It’s not hard work to uncover this fact.

If someone on the street is killed by someone else, society typically makes some effort to find the perpetrator. Forensic investigations take place, detectives are called in, witnesses are found and questioned, and the best efforts are made to ensure the criminal is apprehended and penalised.

In 2003, Tony Blair and George Bush knowingly authorised the deaths of a vast number of people with the Iraq War, and no serious legal proceedings against them have taken place since.

The Nuremberg Principles drafted after the Second World War defined three main types of severe crimes. One of these categories was ‘crimes against peace’ which included ‘planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing’.

In the judgement of the Nuremberg Tribunal, initiating a war of aggression was deemed ‘the supreme international crime[,] differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’

The 2003 invasion of Iraq is an exemplar of a ‘war of aggression’. In a just world, Mr Blair and Mr Bush would have been indicted and brought to the International Criminal Court to stand trial, just as we try killers in our domestic criminal courts—except in this case, the death, destruction and long term damage wreaked was of a far greater magnitude than any run-of-the-mill criminal could hope to accomplish. At minimum, about 200,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion according to the Iraq Body Count. Estimates vary because states do not count their own victims or those of their allies.

Our treatment of criminality amounts to a carte blanche to kill foreigners. We see this continue in Boris Johnson’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Britain’s cutting of aid to Yemen. This situation needs fixing, and the solution isn’t complicated, though it might be difficult to implement. The law needs to apply equally to everyone. Blair is as guilty today of waging a devastating war of aggression as he was in 2003. If the law meant anything he would be standing trial.

There’s a deep irony in the fact that those who perpetrate the most severe crimes on an international scale can expect little or no punishment beyond mild reputational damage, whereas those who perpetrate relatively minor crimes in comparison can expect all of society’s resources to be mobilised to try and catch them.

The point isn’t that the ordinary criminal is irrelevant. Domestic crimes must be prosecuted. But killing on a massive international scale has to be treated even more seriously, and currently it’s not treated as a crime at all, particularly when our government or one of our allies is the guilty party.

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