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Should Henry Kissinger
be Tried for War Crimes?




February 28, 2001

LONDON - Someone, somewhere had to say it and confirm what the Pentagon always feared would happen if an international war crimes court were established: that the U.S. harboured war criminals of its own and they had served not that long ago at the apex of power in the American government. Last Saturday the renowned journalist, Christopher Hitchens, did just that in an extract from his forthcoming book, "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" published in the London newspaper, The Guardian.

Kissinger, who served as President Richard Nixon's National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, has long known that there is a cottage industry of researchers, journalists, lawyers and academics out to destroy his formidable reputation. For years he has kept them at bay, even if at times he has come near to being nailed, as with William Shawcross' formidable book, "Sideshow", which alleged that with the bombing campaign he unleashed on Cambodia he effectively destroyed an almost innocent bystander of the Vietnam war. Kissinger, who became a media star during Nixon's term of office with his unique combination of intellectual prowess, hide-toughened realpolitik and an unflinching ability to successfully woo any glamorous film star that crossed his path, has managed while out of power to remain a darling of the movers and shakers in American high society. The bullets that would fell a lesser man appear to simply bounce off him and he remains courted by business, politicians, journalists and society hostesses whose presence, they believe, will add yeast, or rather a frisson- the authentic touch of raw and unapologetic power- to any occasion you care to name.

I can be no judge of Hitchen's charges on Cambodia, Cyprus and East Timor but I can say that on Chile where I have just completed my own researches for a soon-to-be-published book ("Like Water on Stone", Penguin, May, 2001) he is accurate down to the last comma. Chile was unique in Latin America with an almost unbroken continuous democracy since independence in 1818. But in the presidential election of 1970 a Marxist socialist, Salvador Allende, surprised Washington by winning 36.2% of the vote in the first round. The CIA in a formal Intelligence Memorandum observed that the U.S. "has no vital interests with Chile- an Allende victory would not pose any likely threat to the peace of the region". But Nixon and Kissinger hit the roof. Kissinger was minuted as saying: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people." A couple of weeks later Nixon, with Kissinger's ardent approval, gave Richard Helms the widest possible authority ("a marshal's baton, Helms later called it) to prevent Allende's presidency by any means available.

Although the U.S. ambassador to Chile came to Washington and strongly argued to Kissinger and Nixon that a military coup would not be in the best interests of Chile, and although Kissinger later claimed he called off the CIA operation, Chile's chief of staff, General Rene Schneider, who was known to be strongly opposed to a coup, was duly murdered. The assassins were the very conspirators the CIA had funded earlier. Washington followed this with a severe economic squeeze that gave General Augusto Pinochet his opening. On September 11th, 1973 Pinochet ordered the bombing of Allende in the presidential palace and immediately ordered the arrest and torture of thousands of Allende supporters. Two years later, after Amnesty International had widely publicised the ongoing torture of suspected dissidents, Kissinger, in a conversation with Patricio Carvajal, Pinochet's foreign minister, said "I hold the strong view that human rights is not appropriate for discussion in a foreign policy context".

Thus the man who, along with Nixon, had made the illicit coup possible turned his back on the consequences.

After Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998, the ruling by Britain's highest court, the House of Lords, crystallised half a century's debate on the legal and political problems of accountability for crimes against humanity. For the first time in a high court anywhere it was decided that sovereign immunity must not be allowed to become sovereign impunity. For that we have to thank most of the nations of the world, including the U.S. of Ronald Reagan and the Britain of Margaret Thatcher who put their signatures to the UN Convention Against Torture and thus laid the legal basis for the British ruling.

Now, since the vote in Rome in the summer of 1998 approving the statute creating the International Criminal Court, the means will soon be available to try people who are accused of all crimes against humanity, not just torture. Fortunately for Kissinger it cannot deal retroactively and is doubtful if the Convention Against Torture can be used as a basis for prosecuting a person once removed.

Still if the discussion now afoot gives Kissinger himself something of a frisson it will not be in vain. Society should have other means of punishing this man and one way would be to take him off the pedestal on which he now stands. This man should be scorned not feted. It is time overdue that western high society stopped courting a man who, for all his intellectual bravado, is arguably nothing more than a common war criminal.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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