U.S. history is making it harder to punish Vladimir Putin for his savagery

A man exits the transit area after clearing immigration and customs on arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S., September 24, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan/Files

The news – and images – of devastating Russian attacks on civilians and hospitals in Ukraine, which killed numerous people and wounded children and pregnant women, have horrified the world. They embody the brutality of Russian President Vladimir Putin and have sparked broad condemnation, including from the Biden administration.

Not only has Russia committed aggression against a sovereign state, but it has also violated the “Geneva Conventions [by] moving exceptionally lethal weaponry [such as cluster munitions] into Ukraine,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In fact, using these weapons in armed conflict, Thomas-Greenfield underscored to the U.N. General Assembly, is outlawed by the conventions.

Yet, the U.S. mission to the United Nations edited the transcript of this part of her speech – and for a reason that might surprise many Americans: The U.S. government refuses to outlaw cluster bombs and has opposed the creation of a new treaty to ban them.

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Thomas-Greenfield’s volte-face exposes America’s broader posture to the effort to humanize warfare over the past 75 years. The United States touts its foundational role in creating rules to make warfare less destructive. Yet this claim is far more myth than reality. Instead, the United States systematically undermined the very creation of the rules that Thomas-Greenfield criticized Russia for violating. And since their inception, the U.S. government has a long record of subverting the Geneva Conventions, the most important rules ever formulated for regulating armed conflict. This history has critical implications for why civilians on today’s battlefields, from Ukraine to Yemen, continue to suffer.

In the aftermath of the brutality of World War II, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) played a leading role in pushing for a new set of rules to ensure that noncombatants and prisoners of war would be sufficiently protected in armed conflict. A momentous joint effort by the ICRC and the Swiss government led to a diplomatic conference in Geneva in 1949 to revise and refine the ICRC’s proposals into something that the nations of the world could sign.

But rather than championing the proposals, the U.S. delegation had instructions from the Harry S. Truman administration to bring them in line with American security interests so that they wouldn’t hinder the global struggle against communism. U.S. proposals included maintaining the death penalty in occupied territory, and the United States reversed its initial support for an ambitious war crimes program, opposed a ban on indiscriminate bombing and defended the use of starvation as a weapon of war.

In an internal report in September 1949, Claude Pilloud, a legal specialist at the ICRC, noted that the Americans and their allies were endorsing the very same things for which the Nazis had been punished at the Nuremberg Trials.

Whereas European and Asian victims of Axis occupation demanded rights for civilians, U.S. delegates defended the occupier’s interests to the point of alienating their closest NATO allies – who had just emerged from Nazi rule. This immediately placed strain on the new alliance, and the Soviet Union eagerly moved to exploit theses fissures. The Soviets launched a propaganda campaign from Geneva and in various communist news outlets to characterize the U.S. suggestions as reminiscent of fascist practices.

Yet, the pressure applied by the United States and some of its allies forced the conventions’ drafters to make significant modifications. They eliminated strict bans on the starving of civilians through blockade, the targeting of noncombatants in urban areas and mechanisms of legal unaccountability. Additionally, despite being one of the visionaries of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials to hold Nazi Germany and Japan responsible for their war crimes, the U.S. delegation eventually opposed plans to punish major violations of the conventions as “grave breaches,” and it refused to create an international criminal court.

With these modifications, the United States eagerly embraced humanitarian law to demonstrate that it possessed the most ethical armed forces in history. During the U.S. ratification process of the conventions in the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, said that the United States could take “pride in its leading role [in establishing] humane standards for the protection of the defenseless in time of war,” and claimed that it had “greatly contributed” to the creation of the Geneva Conventions.

Yet, just as this rhetoric distorted the historical reality, the United States often embraced the conventions more in word than deed, regularly unleashing ferocious force against those who opposed its will. Even while the United States was discussing the virtues of humanitarian law during the conventions’ ratification debates, the U.S. Air Force was bombing civilians to death in Korea. And that set the tone for the next three-quarters of a century, with the deliberate targeting of civilians during the Vietnam War as the epitome of U.S. brutality in war.

This gulf between American words and deeds is not a relic of the past either. For example, despite official apologies, no U.S. personnel have faced repercussions – or even an investigation – for a recent drone strike in Afghanistan that “mistakenly” killed civilians including seven children. Furthermore, the United States continues to work to undermine attempts to place greater restraints on its conduct of warfare. American officials have refused calls for a binding agreement to outlaw autonomous weaponry – “killer robots” – so that they can maintain flexibility to develop new weapons capabilities. And in the domain of nuclear warfare, the United States also refuses to sign the ICRC-promoted treaty banning nuclear weapons while planning extremely costly updates to its existing arsenal.

This long history of the United States’ paying lip service to humanitarian law, while routinely undermining its principles and development in the name of defending liberal democratic values raises troubling questions. A Cold War logic in which the need to deter an illiberal enemy and to maintain flexibility in case of a new military confrontation justifies and demands the willingness to tolerate massive civilian suffering has driven and still drives U.S. policy. But, today, these actions make the Biden administration’s criticism of Putin for violations of the Geneva Conventions in Ukraine ring hollow. Thus is undermined the effectiveness of such criticism and American credibility to build a coalition to sanction Putin for these breaches.

If the U.S. government truly wants to deter Putin from targeting civilians and to undermine his position internationally, it needs to break with its own history. By long neglecting powerful global norms against such cruelty and aggression, the United States has hamstrung its own ability to fully isolate Putin’s regime. To be a moral leader globally, the United States has to become a true champion of protecting civilians in wartime – in words and deeds.

Doing so would enable the United States to counter more forcefully the decline of international law as a result of aggression and brutality in wartime. Putin’s viciousness exposes the stakes – and the need for the United States and its NATO allies to do better. If international law is to survive this period of savagery, its champions’ voices need to be heard, and the world’s biggest powers need to send a more consistent signal.

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Boyd van Dijk is a McKenzie fellow at the Melbourne Law School. His new book on the history of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, “Preparing for War: The Making of the Geneva Conventions,” has just come out with Oxford University Press.

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