The “Gift” of International Law

The “Gift” of International Law
Commemoration Service at ATK, Memorial Day 2004

We have learned in our high school civics classes and are told time and again by our political leaders that the United States of America was founded on a set of beliefs that proclaim a basic right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. As a people we both celebrate and champion the rights and freedoms we enjoy. But when the federal government was being formed, when our Constitution was being written, those who proposed this new government insisted that we are also part of a community of nations around the world. In Article VI of the US Constitution our government states that any treaties made by our nation with other nations become “the supreme law of the land”.

Ever since the nature of military weaponry became more dangerous, there have been efforts put forth to place limits on the scope and nature of warfare. This began in the US during its Civil War where a transition from the musket to a bored rifle and the introduction to a Gattling machine gun greatly increased the number of casualties. Around the turn of the 20th Century, nations met in The Hague, Netherlands to discuss together how to mitigate the horrendous effects of “modern warfare”. In 1907, these nations adopted rules of warfare which have been called The Hague Conventions. The nations who signed this treaty agreed to prohibit the use of certain weapons, especially those employing poison and weapons which caused unnecessary suffering. It clearly stated that the means of injuring an enemy were limited by law. The US Government signed these treaties.

After the disastrous effects of two world wars, nations once again met, this time in Geneva, Switzerland to continue to work at the problem of how these recent wars were fought. In Geneva, special attention was directed at the issue of the killing and injuring of civilians- non-combatants who suffered during a war because of deliberate actions taken by their or other nations. New language was adopted for these treaties, called The Geneva Conventions, again limiting what military forces were permitted or prohibited from doing during a war. New regulations mandated treatment of “Prisoners of War” as well as proscribing or prohibiting weapons which were “indiscriminate”, meaning that they killed “innocent” civilians as well as opposing military forces. It was the understanding of the nations which were involved in developing these treaties that both individuals as well as nations should be held accountable for violations of “Humanitarian Law” or The Laws of War. The US Government signed these treaties.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US Government and its Allies of France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, convened a trial in Nuremberg, Germany to investigate and punish “war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity”. The prosecution, led by The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Robert Jackson, accused and convicted military, political, and corporate leaders under the Nazi regime. The Agreement For the Establishment of an International Military Tribunal for War Criminals in Europe became another treaty signed by the US Government. At the end of the trials at Nuremburg, 7 Principles, called The Nuremburg Principles, were adopted and became part of the Treaty establishing the United Nations. The US not only signed the treaty but was a major force in crafting these Principles and Charter for the UN. Principle 7 of the Nuremberg Principles states that “Complicity in a … war crime or a crime against humanity … is a crime under international law.”

Later Protocols or additions to the Geneva Conventions were written and adopted into law further limiting what weapons could be used in war. Specific mention was made to prohibit weapons which might cause “long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.” Again language was included to mandate distinguishing “between the civilian population and combatants”. This treaty was adopted in 1977. In 1980, an additional treaty, called The CCW because it prohibited or restricted the use of “certain conventional weapons” continued the march of international law in rejected the use of weapons which were “indiscriminate”, “caused superfluous or unnecessary suffering”, and/or caused widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment. The stated goal of the treaty was to “putting an end to the production, stockpiling and proliferation of such weapons.” More recent United Nations organizations, including the UN Commission on Human Rights, have adopted a specific ban on depleted uranium weapons and cluster bombs among other “indiscriminate” weapons.
As a member of the UN and as a signatory to these treaties, these International Humanitarian Law provisions are to be treated as “the Supreme Law of the Land” as stated in our constitution.

International Law is clear that not only the use of these weapons but also the “manufacture and sale” of such weapons is a violation of the laws of war. The conviction of “war criminals” at Nuremberg included some of the corporate executives of German factories making weapons. Many of us here today have called on our political and military leaders to renounce these indiscriminate weapons. We are here today to remind the corporation officials that they too are in violation of International Humanitarian Law.

The State of Minnesota has written into its Criminal Trespass Law a provision for individuals to make a good faith “claim of right” to be on the property of another. The US Constitution tells us that these treaties we have signed “trump” or are “supreme” over local laws. The Nuremberg Principles remind us that “complicity” with this illegal manufacture and sale of these weapons is a crime as well.

I am grateful for the “gift” of International Law which helps call us back to be part of the community of nations. These laws are designed to help us overcome our blind patriotism and call us to accountability. I commend all of you here today that are protesting the existence of these weapons and who want to break the “silence” that protects them and those who make them.

Steve Clemens
May 31, 2004