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  • Writer's pictureEmma Harman

On war crimes and war criminals

War is an ugly business. The whole premise of war is ugly – a physical battle of strength to secure a piece of land, power over a group of people or to advance a religion. Usually an aggressor who is bigger and stronger comes in and forces themselves, their might onto someone smaller or weaker or less organised. During the process of war, soldiers die, infrastructure is destroyed and civilians tend to be displaced. The loss of civilian lives is a common outcome, and they are often the lives of the weaker members of a community – children, the elderly, disabled etc.

When all the fighting is done and the new normal is established, the victor gets the opportunity to ensure that their side of the story is the one that is told the loudest. There is almost always some sort of justification given for why the war began and often atrocities are whitewashed away or glossed over. However there are always survivors – people who made it out alive, or evidence left behind. These usually tell horrific tales of torture, rape, starvation, humiliation, capture, deprivations. All manner of abuses come to light and we are horrified again at what humans are capable of doing to others. We look at stories of concentration camps and death marches, comfort women and ethnic cleansing and rightfully so, they horrify us.

The United Nations created a list of rules that countries were encouraged to agree to should they ever find themselves at war. These rules are supposed to minimise the loss of innocent and civilian lives. They are supposed to protect the lives and safety of non-combatants. They are designed to create a fair fight. A bit like rules at a boxing match or martial arts tournaments. You are allowed to do this and this, but you are NOT allowed to do that and that. Its not unlike parents trying to mediate between their kids.

The question is – what happens when armies break these rules? What happens when atrocities are committed either by individuals, a small group or even as a widespread tactic by an army? What can and should be done when people do not behave as they should? The answer - there should be an enquiry, an investigation to determine which rules were broken, by whom and then consequences applied. For example, cases where former SS guards were prosecuted for crimes they committed in WWII, or ISIS for the crimes they committed in Iran and Afghanistan. When found guilty, we vilify them - They were BAD people. They shouldn’t have done it! How awful it must have been! Etc etc. All this is fairly straightforward……until it is one of ours who did wrong. Until one of OUR heroes is discovered not to be as honourable as we thought. When it is one of ours, we tend to want to protect them, excuse them, or somehow make it not seem as bad. A little bit like when our kid is found to be a bully at school – “the other kid must have provoked the situation” or “I never did like that kid anyway, they probably deserved what they got”!

The thing is, for war criminal’s victims and their victim’s families, the pain suffering and humiliation is very real. If we consider ourselves a country that is “modern” and “ethical” or at the very least where a fair go is a right, then we must prosecute war crimes. If someone is found guilty of them then they should not continue to be celebrated. If we don’t want foreign soldiers doing the wrong thing to our soldiers and civilians, then we cant let ours do it to them.

Ben Roberts-Smith it turns out, may have been a very impressive soldier who served his country. But it turns out he is also almost certainly a war criminal who let the heat of battle and the situation get in the way of the rules and what we consider ethical and humane. As an SAS soldier – he definitely knew the rules. He doesn’t get to be celebrated anymore.

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