Vanderbilt professor reacts to video of alleged Marines in Afghanistan

Video purporting to show four U.S. marines urinating on dead Afghani fighters, if verified, would clearly fall under the category of a war crime, says a Vanderbilt University law professor.

Mike Newton (Vanderbilt)

“The law of war has long made this a war crime in all circumstances during all types of conflicts, and we prosecuted people after World War II for situations like this,” said Michael Newton, professor of the practice of law.

Prohibition against desecration of the dead during wartime goes back at least to the 1907 Hague Convention, Newton said. The ban is also included in the Geneva Conventions and many military manuals around the world, Newton said.

The video, widely available on the Internet, shows what appears to be four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. During a telephone call Jan. 10, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai a full investigation of the video, according to news reports.

The International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute bans “committing outrages upon personal dignity” during international armed conflicts, Newton said. There is no provision that a person “be aware of the existence of the humiliation or degradation or other violation,” meaning a victim need not be living to be protected from desecration.

Newton, a West Point graduate and former professor there, helped revamp the laws and procedures for U.S. military commissions and helped establish the Iraqi Special Tribunal and led the training in international criminal law for its judges. Newton served in the Office of War Crimes Issues at the U.S. Department of State and was one of two U.S. delegates who negotiated the Elements of Crime document for the International Criminal Court.