Now hand over your suspects, Mr Bush

The sight of tyrants on trial is a rare moment of accountability, but don't be fooled

Johann Hari

The Independent

02 July 2004

If we were serious about justice, the trials of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic would be the start of a long process. The sight of these tyrants being confronted with due legal process - something they never required before they prescribed a slashed throat or an acid bath - is a rare, flickering moment of accountability, but nobody should be fooled. There are other wanted men being harboured and pampered today by the United States.

Let's concentrate only on the most extensively documented crimes. On 3 December 1984, the air in Bhopal, a slum in central India, became toxic. Clouds of poisonous gas from the Union Carbide factory near the town puffed out over a 20-mile radius, in one of the most densely populated places on earth. The leaves on Bhopal's trees turned black.

Within three days, 5,000 people had drowned in their own bodily fluids or been trampled to death, in scenes similar to Saddam's gassing of Halabja. The Indian government has explained that more than 20,000 people died as a direct result over the months and years that followed. The deaths continue today. In 1999, a Greenpeace International study, by distinguished scientists, found levels of mercury and volatile chemicals over one million times the safe amount. Champa Devi Shukla, one of the survivors, explains what life is like in Bhopal today. "People still have pain and breathlessness, and we are seeing very high levels of cancer, too. There is mental and physical retardation among children. Many women are sterile or never begin menstruating, so men don't want to marry them."

The Indian government and campaigners across the world believe there is a strong case that Union Carbide is criminally responsible for this mass slaughter. A 1973 document - signed by Warren Andersen, Carbide's then CEO - notes the technology used in the Bhopal factory was "unproven". In 1982, a safety review by the company's own experts warned of a "serious potential for sizeable releases of toxic materials". Yet the crew operating the factory's most dangerous technology was halved in the years leading up to the tragedy. On the night of the disaster, the factory's safety systems were not functioning - they were "under repair" - and a vital refrigeration unit had been shut off by company officials to save on electricity bills.

Andersen is wanted in India on charges of culpable homicide. His lawyers claim that Union Carbide was the victim of sabotage. If this is true, and Andersen is innocent, why won't he face a court in the world's largest democracy and produce his evidence? The US government has flatly refused the requests by the Indian government to allow this to happen.

When the Taliban refused to extradite Osama bin Laden, the US government was so outraged it bombed Afghanistan, yet it is not even prepared to hand over Andersen to a democratic state. Are dead Indians somehow less human than dead New Yorkers or Iraqis or Kosovars? Do their lungs burn less as they fill with poison gas?

The US is not only preventing the trials of businessmen. Amid the moist panegyrics for Ronald Reagan last month, the record of his government in assaulting a democratic government in Nicaragua and funding the mass murder of civilians was consigned to the memory hole. The people of Nicaragua deserve justice just as much as the people of Iraq - and they could find it in the trial of one leading figure, Colonel Oliver North.

North now lives very comfortably in Washington on the proceeds from his best-selling memoir and his daily talk radio show, Common Sense with Oliver North. But just 20 years ago, he was the conduit for the illegal Contra campaign, funded by the Reagan White House, to overthrow Nicaragua's democratic government.

William Pace, head of the Coalition for an International Criminal Court, explains: "If it was proven that Oliver North knew about the atrocities that were committed by the Contras, yes, he could have been held accountable before the ICC, had it existed at the time."

It seems hard to believe that North was unaware of the massacres being committed by his friends in the far-right "resistance". They were - almost to a man - loyalists to the US-backed regime of Anastasio Somoza, the tyrant who had murdered and tortured tens of thousands of his citizens Saddam-style. His programme of slaughter was only stopped in 1979 by an uprising. A broadly democratic socialist government led by the Sandinistas emerged in his wake - and it is this government that Reagan and North could not tolerate.

Their moral and legal defence was based on the claim that the Sandinistas were Soviet stooges. In fact, they held free and open elections, and Oxfam said they were "exceptional in the strength of their commitment to improving the condition of the people and encouraging their active participation in the development process".

The Cold War was not illegitimate. It was necessary to resist the Soviet Union, particularly its encroachment into Western Europe. But North's war in Central America disingenuously used anti-Communist rhetoric to assault countries that, in reality, had merely defied US business interests. The Sandinista government did not represent a victory for the Soviets; they were a victory for independent democratic development.

North famously siphoned profits from the Reagan administration's secret sale of arms to Iran towards the Contras. With the money he doled out, the Contras besieged Nicaragua, indiscriminately massacring more than 15,000 civilians. Their behaviour was so savage, the US actions were unprecedentedly condemned by the World Court as "terrorism".

When North was eventually tried in the United States over the Iran-Contra scandal, it was for comparatively minor offences, like lying to Congress about his activities and poorly accounting for some of the funds he was supposed to distribute. Nicaragua remains a devastated society. Sixty per cent of Nicaraguan children under two are suffering from severe malnutrition today, and 20 per cent suffer some form of brain damage as a result.

North should have to make his case before a jury in Managua. That is, I'm afraid, an extradition for which we will have to wait a long time. Far from dealing with their own, the current Bush administration has tried to appoint America's most heinous war criminal of all, the Vietnam-leveller Henry Kissinger, to head the 11 September inquiry. They have made John Negroponte - a leading figure in the Contra wars - their ambassador to Iraq. Oliver North boasts of his "great access" to the Bush White House, and several leading figures in the US cabinet have appeared on his show to be congratulated on their "great work".

But these extraditions will not happen. US corporations continue to spend a pittance on the safety of workers in their plants in developing countries, and they bully and coerce poor governments not to introduce mandatory regulations. If Warren Andersen faced justice, that would have to change - and the US government doesn't want it.

The US continues to support barbaric anti-democratic forces, from Uzbekistan to Saudi Arabia. If Oliver North faced justice, that too would have to change - and the US government doesn't want it. So rejoice with the Iraqi people at the trial of Saddam - but remember that, for today, American justice visits only Baghdad.

j.hari@independent.co.uk