Here's a scenario. A Russian cargo ship fires at an approaching small boat flying the Union Jack in the British Channel with the result one man dies and others are injured. The captain of the cargo ship initially denies the fatal incident and is allowed to sail on unencumbered towards his scheduled destination. No one is arrested; no one is questioned; no one is held accountable. An unlikely story you might think. What cargo ship crew would have the audacity to shoot at unarmed boatmen in their own waters and continue merrily on their way without fear of repercussions? Answer: an American one.
In March, the MV Global Patriot, a roll-on-roll off merchant ship sailing under US Navy contract through the Suez Canal, shot and killed Mohammad Fouad, a 27-year-old Egyptian cigarette vendor who regularly plied his trade in the narrow strip of water. According to reports, the Suez Canal vendors know not to come too close to warships but as the ship's owners have confirmed, the Global Patriot is not marked or designated as such.
After an initial denial, the US Navy later apologised for the incident, which they said was caused by the vessel being forced to fire "warning shots" when verbal warnings went unheeded. The victim's brother disputes this account. He says his brother's companions told him there were no warning shots. "They just turned a spotlight" on the boat "and started firing immediately," he said. His sister blames the Egyptian government for not protecting its own. "If we were protected, they would not have dared to gun us down like animals," she told the Associated Press.
Since the Global Patriot was not boarded or detained, it's unlikely we will ever know the truth but it seems to me that the incident has set a disturbing precedent. US vessels can go around the world shooting and killing innocent citizens of allied countries within their own territory without any comeback. Indeed, the tragedy didn't even fall into the category of diplomatic incident.
In this case, the US Navy cites self-defence in light of the attack on the USS Cole that was harboured off Aden in 2000. But there is a difference. The USS Cole is a Navy Guided Missile Destroyer not a merchant vessel like M.V. Global Patriot. Moreover, didn't Mohammad Fouad and his injured friends have as much right as the Global Patriot's crew to life and limb?
This incident is just another example of the cavalier way in which the US military treats non-American lives. We've witnessed this over and over again in Afghanistan and Iraq where families have been incinerated for driving too close to US Army vehicles, entire villages were bombed under suspicion they were harbouring "terrorists" and wedding parties wiped out all because of celebratory gunfire.
Those tragedies, too numerous to list here, are shocking enough but if one were disposed to give the US military the benefit of the doubt -- which, by the way, I'm not -- it could be argued mistakes occur in a war zone. But the Suez Canal is nowhere near any war zone and the Egyptians are scrupulous in patrolling their vital economic lifeline to eliminate terrorist threats.
In a global system of justice that didn't operate on the basis of might is right, whoever killed Fouad should be handed over to the Egyptian government or to the International Court in The Hague to face trial. This is, of course, pie in the sky. Why would the International Court get involved in the right and wrongs as to the death of one man even if the US hadn't reneged on its promise to abide by its jurisdiction? Surely its focus is on trying the perpetrators of war crimes and genocide?
But wait! I must be mistaken. The Hague is to receive $60 million from UN member nations to try the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri when and if they are named by a UN enquiry. And that sum will just about cover the first year's costs.
The latest report issued by the Hariri enquiry suggests a criminal gang is behind his assassination, which, if true, means the Hague tribunal will probably rank as the most expensive criminal trial in history. This wasn't, of course, the plan. The countries that are pouring their taxpayers' money into exacting justice for the Lebanese politician and entrepreneur are not so much interested in prosecuting murderous thugs as seeing Syria in the dock. Unfortunately for them, far from implicating Syria, the report has praised Damascus for its cooperation.
So here it is. The US gets away with the murder of a poor Egyptian boatman whose only crime was to hawk his cigarettes near an American cargo vessel in order to feed his wife and two children. On the other hand, Syria, whose role in the death of Hariri is entirely unproven and vehemently denied, is under UN scrutiny and the shadow of a special tribunal at The Hague.
The message is clear. All men are not equal in the eyes of the law and neither are all nations. Would an Egyptian vessel have been allowed to continue its journey out of New York after shooting an American? Would the Global Patriot have dared fire on a Chinese boat off Hong Kong? You decide.
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Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 Linda S. Heard