A Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of US Actions in Iraq was held in Tacoma, Washington on January 20-21, 2007. The Citizens’ Hearing was organized in response to US Army Lieutenant Ehren Watada’s refusal to deploy to Iraq on grounds that the war is illegal, and in the belief that when government fails to act responsibly and legally it is the duty of citizens in a democracy to act.

Lt. Watada faces a court martial on February 5, 2007 at Fort Lewis, Washington for failing to deploy with his Stryker Brigade to Iraq and for “conduct unbecoming of an officer.” The military judge has refused to allow Lt. Watada to raise a Nuremberg defense, the basis of which is his contention that the war in Iraq is illegal and therefore orders to deploy to the war are illegal.

The Citizens’ Hearing Panel, which I chaired, was composed of twelve citizens, who heard testimony on the issue of the illegality of the war – testimony that would have been introduced at Lt. Watada’s court martial if the military judge had allowed it. A majority of the Panel consisted of US military veterans going back to World War II, as well as a military family member, a Gold Star family member, a government leader, a religious leader, a union member and a high school student.

The Panel heard testimony on four principal issues: whether the war in Iraq was an illegal war of aggression and thus a crime against peace; whether a systematic pattern of war crimes have been committed by US forces in Iraq; whether crimes against humanity have been committed; and whether a US military officer has a duty to refuse illegal orders. Testimony was presented by Iraq War veterans, experts in international law and diplomats.

The testimony of the experts in international law was clear that the war in Iraq was initiated illegally. The US invasion of Iraq did not comply with the United Nations Charter, in that it was not authorized by the UN Security Council, nor was it required for immediate self-defense. It was a war of aggression, violating international law and the United States Constitution. Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution makes the United Nations Charter, a treaty duly signed and ratified by the US government, a part of the “supreme Law of the Land.”

The most powerful testimony presented came from five Iraq War veterans. They described a military training process in which the dehumanization of Iraqis was pervasive, creating an unhealthy environment conducive to the commission of war crimes. The veterans described the constant reference to Iraqis, at all levels of the chain of command, as hajis, ragheads and worse. Some described orders to shoot and kill children.

One veteran described an instance in which he witnessed a frightened mother and daughter being shot in the back as they ran away from US troops. There was also testimony on the beating and killing of prisoners. The soldiers testified that the atmosphere of targeting civilians did not come simply from the individual soldiers, but from far higher in the command structure.

The consistent testimony of the Iraq War veterans was that the lives of Iraqis were devalued and that war crimes were systematically committed as a result of the rules of engagement in Iraq. The Panel also received testimony on the systematic torture of Iraqi prisoners and on the use of heavy US weaponry in a manner that failed to discriminate between soldiers and civilians. Former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations Denis Halliday described the “shock and awe” initiation of the war as “a terrorist act.”

Colonel Ann Wright, a former army officer and diplomat, testified that the United States had not met its obligations as an occupying power, and that grave breeches of the Geneva Conventions were occurring regularly in the treatment and torture of prisoners. Colonel Wright and other expert witnesses urged that US leaders be held accountable for their criminal actions.

There was also testimony on crimes against humanity. Prominent in this testimony was discussion of the systematic destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, including water facilities, sewage treatment facilities and electric power facilities. One expert, Antonia Juhasz, a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, testified that all the US orders to change Iraq’s laws to provide economic advantage to the US, particularly in relation to Iraq’s oil, were in violation of international law. Thus, all contracts created in this way must be rescinded and the profits returned to the Iraqi people.

On the critical question regarding Lt. Watada’s refusal of orders, there was strong testimony that soldiers and officers are only required to obey lawful orders. In accord with the Nuremberg Charter and Principles, the US Constitution and US Army Field Manual 27-10, an officer has a duty to act lawfully by refusing to follow illegal orders. Insofar as the war in Iraq is an illegal aggressive war in which war crimes and crimes against humanity are being systematically committed, Lt. Watada acted lawfully in refusing orders to deploy to Iraq. Professor Richard Falk testified that the military judge’s order preventing Watada from presenting evidence on the illegality of the war was “criminally disallowing him from obeying the law.”

The full report of the Panel of the Citizens’ Hearing will be released soon; some of the testimony is now available on the website www.wartribunal.org. The preliminary, but unanimous, finding of the Panel is that the US has committed crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq. Further, Lt. Watada acted legally and honorably in refusing orders to deploy to Iraq, and his actions are in accord with the oath he took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He was the panel chair and a member of the Jury of Conscience of the World Tribunal on Iraq held in Istanbul in July 2005.