On February 19, a Swedish court convicted a former Iraqi officer for war crimes against Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters in Iraq. The evidence was pictures and videos he had posted on Facebook of himself with the bodies of men who had been beheaded. The Orebro district court sentenced the 38-year-old defendant to 15 months in prison for an outrage against personal dignity. This judgment may not seem particularly important given larger matters of justice related to ISIS – but it is.
International humanitarian law prohibits, as a war crime, humiliating and degrading treatment of people, including of the dead.
At a time when leaders and politicians around the world seem to have little difficulty justifying abuses against ISIS suspects, this court is reminding us that war crimes are war crimes, regardless of the ideologies or misdeeds of the victims, or indeed the just cause of the perpetrators.
This conviction also signals to Iraqi courts the need to be holding military personnel accountable for torture, executions on the battlefield, and mutilating or desecrating corpses.
Videos posted during past battles by Iraqi officers proudly committing war crimes against ISIS suspects are not hard to find on social media. When I have confronted Iraqi authorities, and even US-led coalition partners, with this material, they have frequently use the same refrain: But ISIS did so much worse, ISIS was truly evil.
While ISIS committed countless atrocities, dismissing war crimes on that basis reveals a deeply disturbing impulse for Iraqis and coalition forces to use the ISIS standard – a group that massacred civilians, promoted sex slave auctions and burned people alive in cages – as the one to compare themselves to. It’s a scary standard.
The Swedish court decision is important because it reminds us that law exists to push us to be more humane, not to be discarded in a race to the bottom.