The bestowing of official positions and accolades on men guilty of human rights violations is a bipartisan issue. Henry Kissinger, for example, remains widely respected in Washington, D.C., circles, and was honored by the Obama administration in a 2016 ceremony at the Pentagon. Hillary Clinton has referred to Kissinger as a friend. He also advised Trump.
But in administrations past, Kissinger aided regimes that committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, making him complicit. Several individuals, including journalist Charles Glass, have written about Kissinger’s actions. Over the course of nine months in 1971 Bangladesh, the Pakistani Army killed between 300,000 and three million people, raped hundreds of thousands of women, and forced millions of Bengali refugees to flee to India, where many died in camps. Kissinger enabled this massacre by providing the weapons and military supplies used by Pakistan’s military. Kissinger cannot convincingly claim that he was unaware of the abuses, especially in light of detailed reporting from Archer Blood, the U.S. consul general in what was then East Pakistan.
Kissinger also committed war crimes in Indochina by “intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians.” The U.S. began smaller bombing operations in Cambodia in 1965 and a massive bombing campaign, known as “Operation Menu,” starting in 1969. The bombings began under the Johnson administration, but Kissinger, as Nixon’s national security advisor and later secretary of state, also bears responsibility for ordering the bombings because the campaign continued with full knowledge of its impact on civilians. According to the writings of the late author Christopher Hitchens, Kissinger boasted about developing “both a military and a diplomatic schedule” for the bombings.
It is past time to hold these war criminals and their accomplices accountable through people-centered mechanisms such as people’s tribunals. People’s tribunals are forums for justice initiated by grassroots organizations and social justice movements. These forums provide space to adjudicate charges against the state and state actors outside of the formal judicial system.
In October 2017, several Georgia-area organizations held one such people’s tribunal on the issue of Trump’s “Muslim ban.” The prosecution argued that the ban, which blocked all travel from a number of Muslim-majority countries, was unconstitutional and subjected communities to grave human rights violations. The prosecution presented evidence, including statements and tweets by Trump and testimony from Syrian and Somali witnesses impacted by the ban. The jury found Trump and the ban to be in violation of the 1st, 5th, and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
In 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the Muslim ban as a constitutional exercise of the U.S. presidents’ authority over immigration and national security. Nevertheless, the Muslim ban is considered by many to be a violation of international human rights norms that the U.S. is subject to, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Refugee Convention of 1951, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
People’s tribunals that center the voices of directly impacted people can be organized to hold Bush, Abrams, Kissinger, and other war criminals who are still alive, accountable. These individuals may never see the inside of a courtroom, but these tribunals can help correct the historical record on who these political leaders are and what they’ve done. The people impacted by the atrocities they engineered deserve no less.
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