Politics is a dirty business and politicians don't come any dirtier than Dick Cheney. He's a man who delights in operating on the 'dark side' and is the Darth Vader of American politics. However, is it going too far to accuse him of "crimes against humanity"? That term has quite a narrow and specific meaning in international law. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Courts defines it as:
particularly odious offences that constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are part either of a government policy or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. Murder, extermination, torture, rape and political, racial or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.
Pretty heinous stuff, I'm sure we can agree, but that is the yardstick against which we measure the actions of Dick Cheney and see whether they do, in fact, amount to "crimes against humanity".
The Illegal Invasion of Iraq
Going to war is the most serious action that a government can take. Citizens must never be put in harm's way or have their lives put at risk except where the most pressing and urgent necessity exists. We now know that the invasion of Iraq was based on lies. Virtually everything that Cheney said about it was simply untrue. There were no WMDs and he knew it. Iraq posed no threat to the west and he knew it. There was no connection whatsoever between Iraq and Al Quaeda and he knew it . Cheney repeatedly lied to make the case for war. The position of the United Nations was crystal clear. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in September 2004, declared:
The US-led invasion of Iraq was an illegal act that contravened the UN charter.
Legally, the invasion was in violation of the Nuremberg Charter, reflected in both US and international law, which specifically prohibits wars of aggression. So it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Cheney was instrumental in starting an illegal war, surely one of the gravest possible crimes against humanity.
It follows that, if the invasion of Iraq was based upon lies and illegal under international law, any killing that resulted from it would also be illegal. If Cheney wilfully and deliberately misled Congress into authorizing him to engage in an unlawful war in which American troops and Iraqis were killed, he is arguably guilty of murder under American law. The US Criminal Code defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought and specifically holds that murders perpetrated by any kind of wilful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated killing are murders in the first degree. If the killings are the result of Cheney lying to Congress, then they could be regarded as premeditated. Therefore, there is an argument that Cheney can be held responsible for mass murder. So far over 4,000 American soldiers and perhaps as many as a million Iraqis have died as a result of the illegal invasion of Iraq. To put that in perspective, it is vastly more than the death toll from all terrorist acts committed against the west put together.
Prisoner Detention Abuses - Violation of the Geneva Convention
Guantanamo Bay has become an international symbol of everything that was rotten about Bush and Cheney's "war on terror". It was created cynically as a way of avoiding America's obligations under international law and putting the detainees beyond the reach of US justice. The provisions of the Geneva Convention were intended to protect non-combatants, including prisoners, in times of armed conflict. They protect American servicemen as well as everyone else. Cheney claimed that these protections apply only to conflicts between states and since Al Qaeda is not a 'state', the Geneva Convention didn't apply to the "war on terror". It made no sense to anyone. On the one hand, Cheney argued that this was a war on terrorism, subject only to the laws of war, not US criminal or constitutional law. On the other hand, he said the Geneva Convention didn't apply to the war with Al Qaeda, which put the war on terror in a legal limbo. This novel 'anything-goes' approach served as the Bush administration's legal cover for a wide range of questionable tactics, ranging from the Guantanamo military tribunals to efforts to hold even US citizens indefinitely without counsel, charge or trial. The moral and legal no-man's land of Guantanamo was replicated around the world in other secret CIA 'black' prisons where people were held illegally and often tortured.
Torture is a truly heinous crime which is prohibited by both American law and under the Geneva convention, to which the USA is a signatory. Let us be quite clear about this, torture is classified as a war crime. Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code, Section 2441 says that someone is guilty of a war crime if he or she commits a “grave breach of common Article 3” of the Geneva Conventions and it then it defines what a 'grave breach' would be. One such breach is torture or the conspiracy to commit torture. Cheney's regime was not about 'rough' or even 'enhanced' interrogation techniques. It involved practices which have for a long time been generally accepted as torture. These include waterboarding, sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, prolonged stress positions, in some cases rape and sexual abuse, cultural and racist abuse and beatings. These actions that were undertaken by the CIA and military under the direction of Cheney and as part of a widespread government program very clearly fall into the category of crimes against humanity. Torture is an issue which has dragged America into the gutter in the eyes of the rest of the world and it is the issue that may still see Cheney and Bush indicted as war criminals.
To be fair 'extraordinary rendition' (illegally kidnapping people and flying them to prisons in other countries) is a crime that America has also carried out under other administrations, but never to the same extent or as brazenly as under Cheney and Bush. In practice a foreign national might be snatched anywhere in the world and flown to a secret prison in some 'ally' country (like Egypt) where torture is routinely practised. The prisoner may be held without rights or access to any legal system, sometimes for years, and often subjected to the most brutal torture. This was the method by which the CIA, under Cheney's direction, managed to 'out-source' its most heavy-duty torturing and interrogation. The whole thing, of course, is illegal and, as an officially-approved government program that has resulted in torture, clearly constitutes a crime against humanity.
Military Atrocities in Iraq
All war is hell and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Ok, we know that, but Iraq is not a 'war'. There are no opposing armies. It is an illegal invasion and occupation, but even if Iraq were a war there are certain standards and conventions of humanity that civilized countries observe. Sadly there have been far too many lapses in Iraq. The use of illegal white phosphorus in Falujah to burn civilians to the bone, the trigger-happy 'shoot-first-and ask-questions-later' attitude of US contractors like Blackwater, massacres such as Haditha where 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women and children were killed by US marines - it all adds up to a very dirty and brutal occupation and one that was illegal in the first place and based on the lies of Cheney and others. There is little doubt that war crimes have been committed in Iraq but the responsibility for them goes all the way up the line. The troops on the ground didn't start the war. Cheney and Bush did.
Cheney's Death Squads
Reporting legend Seymour Hersh caused quite a furore back in March 2009 when he told an audience at the University of Minnesota that Dick Cheney ran a secret murder squad, which he kept hidden from Congressional oversight. He said at the time, "Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on." He added: "Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us." Secret death-squads are the kind of thing that you might expect in some brutal South-American dictatorship, not America. Although Hersh's allegation was originally attacked by supporters of Cheney, later reports in other newspapers appear to vindicate his charges. It now appears there was indeed a secret assassination program that Cheney instructed the CIA to keep secret from Congress, which in itself was a criminal act.
Treason - the Valerie Plame Affair
Should we consider betraying your country a crime against humanity? What if that betrayal took the form of risking the life of an operational member of the security forces? Maybe not. That's perhaps stretching it a bit, but before we're done with Cheney let's remind ourselves that he is a traitor to America too. On July 6, 2003, four months after the invasion of Iraq, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times disputing the claim that Saddam had tried to purchase enhanced uranium yellowcake from Niger. The claim had been fabricated and used by Bush, Cheney and others in the course of arguing that Saddam's WMD posed a serious threat. To tarnish Wilson, and intimidate anyone else who might be tempted to challenge him publicly, Cheney arranged for his politically savvy deputy, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to leak the confidential information that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA agent (seeking out WMD, no less) and to insinuate that Wilson's evidence of Cheney's dishonesty was tainted and discredited by nepotism. 'Outing' a covert intelligence operative for personal revenge is an action against America, not the individual. Doing this at a time when Cheney himself said the country was at war makes him a traitor.
So has Cheney committed "crimes against humanity"? The evidence is pretty damning. Of course that's not to say these are the only crimes he committed. There have been a multitude of lesser offenses, such as involvement in the illegal wire-tapping program and unanswered questions over why Halliburton, the company he was ex-CEO of and that made his fortune for him, received $8 billion in contracts from the Bush-Cheney administration for work in Iraq. Coincidence? All these issues need detailed and careful scrutiny under the framework of law. The only real question now is whether Obama will find the courage necessary to bring him to justice. For the moment, the jury is still out.