The violence being unleashed on civilians and self-defense forces in the east of Ukraine by the authorities in Kiev constitutes a laundry list of war crimes. However, the West seems intent on employing double standards with regard to human rights and war crimes, applying or ignoring these principles as is convenient to its geopolitical agenda.
While the United States and its allies in Europe wax poetic about democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine, they continue to politically, diplomatically, and tactically support criminals who, in the name of national unity, kill and injure their own people in hopes of maintaining control over a rapidly collapsing country. Conversely, the US and its European and Arab allies have been crying foul over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war against foreign-backed terrorists for over three years, labeling him a “butcher” and a “war criminal,” using the UN and every other international forum to demonize and, according to their designs, ultimately topple his regime.
It would seem then that, rather than genuinely seeking to maintain global stability and the rule of law, Washington uses internationally recognized principles such as human rights and war crimes as means to gain leverage in political conflicts. The US looks the other way when its client regime in Kiev commits obvious war crimes, while portraying leaders who refuse to acquiesce to Washington’s diktats as criminal tyrants. The hypocrisy here is palpable.
Documenting War Crimes in Ukraine
Since the outbreak of violence in Ukraine, and particularly since the illegal Kiev government’s assault on pro-Russian federalist forces in the East, there have been a number of egregious war crimes committed by the so-called “government” and its military and paramilitary forces.
Just in the last 48 hours, there have been numerous reports of intensified military operations in Donetsk and the surrounding region. According to Kiev’s own reports from the scene, at least 50 residents have been killed, with many of them being unarmed civilians. On May 28, a school and kindergarten in Slavyansk were destroyed by shelling from Kiev’s military forces, with reports that at least nine people were injured, including a four year old boy. Additionally, the regime’s forces have taken up positions around the Donetsk airport, shelling it and killing scores more.
Aleksandr Boroday, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic claims that 100 self-defense forces had been killed in the brutal attack on Donetsk. Authorities in the city of Donetsk reported that upwards of 40 had been killed with more than 40 more seriously wounded. All told, the two days since the election of Petro Poroshenko have seen some of the most vicious assaults of the conflict in the East. However, the crimes committed throughout the month of May, and going back even further, are even more heinous.
Perhaps the most callous and inhuman crime thus far has been the assault on the Trade Unions building in Odessa which killed at least 48 people, though that number might be substantially higher. Not only were scores of innocent protesters and activists burned alive inside the building, many others were killed and/or wounded by as yet unidentified toxic agents and/or chemicals. The fact that the incident was perpetrated by Right Sector, the Nazi paramilitary force now officially incorporated into the “National Guard” of the Kiev regime, is of added importance as their actions constitute state-sponsored violence for which the authorities must be held to account. These and other crimes committed by the Kiev, which is recognized and supported by the West, have either been approved of or ignored, or at the very least not condemned, by the US, UN and other critical international institutions.
In fact, in response to the vile, criminal actions of the Right Sector and other elements of Kiev’s forces in Odessa, Donetsk, and elsewhere, President Obama stated, “As Ukrainian forces move to restore order in eastern Ukraine, it is obvious to the world that these Russian-backed groups are not peaceful protesters…The Ukrainian government has the right and responsibility to uphold law and order within its territory.” Such a statement raises very troubling questions about precisely how Obama and his administration are deciding exactly who is a “peaceful protester” and who isn’t. Just three months ago, Obama was proclaiming that those engaging in violence on Maidan, throwing Molotov cocktails at police, destroying property, and occupying government buildings throughout Kiev, were in fact “peaceful, pro-democracy protesters.”
It would seem then that the term “peaceful protesters” are not designated by actions taken and violence caused, but rather by the political alignment of the protesters. When one is on the side supported by Washington, one is a peaceful protester. However, when one is on the side opposing Washington, then one is a terrorist. Of course, such thinking is supported by the authorities in Kiev who continually refer to the pro-Russian federalists as “terrorists.”
Indeed, after the bloody day in Donetsk this week in which at least 50 were killed, First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema stated, “We’ll continue the anti-terrorist operation until not a single terrorist remains on the territory of Ukraine.” The choice of the word “terrorist” is critical to understanding the propaganda function of such a statement. By referring to the pro-Russian federalist activists as “terrorists,” they are “branded” (in the parlance of advertising and public relations) in the mind of Western readers as the enemy. This serves the critical function of minimizing the obvious criminality and barbarism of the authorities in Kiev and their patrons in Washington and Brussels.
It’s important to note also that the statement by Mr. Yarema is indicative of Kiev’s attitude toward the protesters and self-defense forces. Rather than acknowledging legitimate grievances and attempting to establish dialogue and negotiations, the regime is intent on the complete annihilation of the activists. It would seem appropriate to ask just exactly what the Kiev regime’s definition of success in their military assaults is. From their statements, it seems that mass murder of civilians and total subjugation of the South and East are their only objectives. This would make the regime a “threat to peace” in the country.
In examining the developments on the ground in the East, and in particular the actions of the military and “National Guard,” the question of specific war crimes committed becomes central. Though not by any means a conclusive or comprehensive list, the following actions each constitute at least one, often multiple, war crimes:
- On May 26, 2014 reports from Donetsk indicated a widespread military operation initiated by the military under orders from Kiev. During the fighting, multiple witnesses reported deliberate targeting and killing of injured self-defense fighters being transported by truck. As one witness recounted, “First snipers killed the driver, then the truck was directly hit by a grenade launcher. They used rifles to make sure no one was left alive.” Such actions are a direct contravention of Article 12 of the First Geneva Convention which “mandates that wounded and sick soldiers who are out of the battle should be humanely treated, and in particular should not be killed, injured, tortured, or subjected to biological experimentation.”
- The burning of the Trade Unions building in Odessa with scores of civilians inside is undoubtedly a violation of both Article 3 and Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The victims of the incident qualified as “protected persons” under Article 4 of the Convention. As such, their deaths amount to a blatant contravention of Article 3 which states that “non-combatants, members of armed forces who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are out of the fight due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, with the following prohibitions: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture; (b) taking of hostages; (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; (d) the passing of sentences and carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court.” Indeed, the horrific events of May 2nd in Odessa likely constitute a series of war crimes for which Kiev must be held accountable.
- The deliberate shelling of civilian areas in and around Slavyansk, Mariupol, Donetsk, and other cities is also a violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention as it is a willful attack upon protected persons as they are “persons taking no active part in the hostilities.”
4. Multiple eyewitness accounts in Odessa reported that Right Sector and other paramilitary forces that have been documented on video beating survivors of the Trade Unions building blaze deliberately prevented emergency medical aid from being provided to the victims. Reports of the willful blocking of ambulances and fire personnel only adds to the case for yet another violation of the Geneva Convention which requires “the impartial reception and treatment of all combatants” and “the protection of civilians providing aid to the wounded.”
Naturally, there are many more crimes that could have been included in the partial list above, including the use of UN marked helicopters and other military materiel by Kiev’s forces directly violates one of the basic principles of the UN Charter regarding its neutrality. The use of transport vehicles with Doctors Without Borders insignia on them are yet another example of the blatant criminality of the so-called “anti-terror operation.”
And yet, despite the long list of crimes committed by the regime in Kiev, the West continues to support it. In contrast, the US and its European and Arab allies have repeated ad nauseam that Assad’s government has committed widespread war crimes in the war in Syria, and that outside intervention is required in order to prevent further crimes from being committed. Interesting how Washington’s tune changes when the regime is not its puppet.
Syria and the Rhetoric of War Crimes
Unlike in Ukraine, where the West has deftly employed the most elaborate mental and linguistic gymnastics to avoid admitting the obvious war crimes being committed, the US and its allies have been charging Assad and the Syrian military with war crimes repeatedly. Indeed, organs of Western soft power, including human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have been employed in a coordinated demonization campaign against President Assad for what they allege are systematic war crimes. While the specifics of the charges will have to be left for another article, it is critical to point out the striking differences in the situations in Syria and Ukraine. In so doing, it becomes clear that US hypocrisy over the issue is simply breathtaking.
First and foremost is the fact that, unlike in Ukraine where you have a purely internal conflict, in Syria there is an international dimension. Islamic extremists from all over the world (Chechnya, Dagestan, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Canada, Great Britain, etc.) have come streaming into Syria since 2011 to wage jihad against the government of President Assad. Naturally, this changes the character of the conflict as it means that Syria is engaged in an international struggle, as opposed to a purely internal one, with combatants hailing from a wide variety of countries.
Second, the Syrian government has repeatedly engaged in negotiations with various forms of the opposition. They have participated in two separate Geneva conferences in the hopes of brokering some kind of truce. They have consented to a deal, brokered by Russia, to eliminate entirely their chemical weapons stockpile, which they have subsequently begun, and are continuing to do, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission in the country. This is in stark contrast to the authorities in Ukraine who have continually refused offers of negotiation delivered both from the self-defense forces and, most importantly, from Moscow.
Third, the government in Syria has a political and moral responsibility to protect its own civilians in cities like Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere which have at various times been under the control of jihadists who have conducted everything from summary executions of hostages, to genocidal attacks on Christians, to the deliberate destruction of Christian (and other minorities’) holy sites. In contrast, the regime in Kiev does not have such a threat inside its own borders as, even if one were to accept the ridiculous notion that the self-defense forces are “terrorists,” they have never committed any aggressive acts against their own people. The explanation for this is simple – the people of the regions are their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, unlike in Syria where the terrorists see the residents as “the enemy”.
The narrative becomes distorted when examining only the Western media. The Obama administration has recently announced its support for an International Criminal Court investigation, sanctioned by the United Nations, into the allegations of war crimes committed in Syria. Naturally, the proposal is biased in that it purports to examine only Assad’s government’s actions, rather than all potential war crimes, including those committed by the so called “rebels.” However, this is of course secondary. Of primary importance is the fact that the US has refused to call for any investigation into the events of May 2nd in Odessa, or any investigation into any of the war crimes allegations. While Russia has been calling for such an investigation for weeks, thus far the US has either dodged the issue, or provided ambivalent language about the “rights of the government to restore order in the country.”
One would wonder then why Kiev has the right to “restore order” while Damascus is not afforded that same right in a nearly three and a half year civil war that has devastated the entire country. It would seem that entirely different standards are applied to Syria than are applied to Ukraine. While the situations in the respective countries are vastly different, the US-EU position should not be: they should be fully supportive of impartial investigations in both cases, with those alleged to have committed atrocities, regardless of which side they might be from, being made to answer for their crimes.
Of course, that would presuppose that the US is interested in applying a single standard, which it has demonstrated it is not. Instead, the US and its European clients simply use the rhetoric of human rights and war crimes when it suits them, deliberately avoiding the same subject in order to prop up a criminal regime when it suits them.
Naturally, no analysis of this issue would be complete without pointing out the most obvious fact of all: the United States is engaged in widespread and systematic war crimes of its own. From torture of suspected “terrorists” to the use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq causing horrific disfigurements in children born after the conflict, from assassinations of innocent civilians via drone to initiating multiple aggressive wars around the world, the United States has demonstrated utter disdain for international law and human rights. For Washington to lecture anyone on the matter is unbridled hypocrisy. That being said, it is hypocrisy that seems to be the US’s principal export…and business is booming…and the profits just keep on coming.
Eric Draitser is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City, he is the founder of StopImperialism.org and OP-ed columnist for RT, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”