I Beg Your Pardon!: Do Trump’s pardons violate international law?

January 7, 2021


3 min read

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What's going on here?

The United States President, Donald Trump, has pardoned four men convicted of killing fourteen unarmed Iraqi civilians while working as contractors for the US military in 2007. The United Nations has asserted that these pardons “violate US obligations under international law”. 

What does this mean?

On Wednesday 22 December, Mr Trump granted four controversial federal pardons to men who worked for Blackwater, a private security firm, with one of these men being convicted of first-degree murder (the most serious US homicide offence) in 2015. Federal pardons completely set aside a federal crime (an act considered illegal by all 50 US States) committed by certain individuals that are hand-picked by the president, providing them with a “clean slate”. Essentially, it is a grand gesture of the president’s forgiveness. Historically, this power has been afforded to all US presidents under Article 2 of the US Constitution. However, on this occasion, the UN has condemned Mr Trump’s actions. Chair of the UN working group on the use of mercenaries, Jelena Aparac, described the pardons as “an affront to justice”, arguing that such pardons contravened the Geneva Conventions “which oblige states to hold war criminals accountable”. Meanwhile, the White House reasserted that these pardons were “broadly supported by the public”.

What's the big picture effect?

As the sun sets on Mr Trump’s presidency, the legal, or rather the ethical controversy surrounding federal pardons has once again made it into the spotlight. In his four years as president, Mr Trump has granted 70 pardons for a variety of crimes. This is nothing unusual in the US. What is more unusual is his willingness to pardon four men implicated in the killing of innocent Iraqi civilians. In contrast, during Barack Obama’s term as president (2009 – 2017), none of his 212 pardons involved murder charges. Mr Aparac further asserted that Mr Trump’s pardons “undermine humanitarian law and human rights on a global level”. General David Petraus, commander of US forces in 2007, and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador in Iraq at the time, said that this “tells the world that Americans abroad can commit the most heinous crimes with impunity”. 

The New York Times, among others, have made a plea for incoming President-Elect Joe Biden to reform the pardon system, saying that Mr Trump “abuses it for all its worth”. This is somewhat due to many of Trump’s pardons being seen as politically motivated. For example, the brother of Trump’s education secretary owns the Blackwater firm that employed those pardoned. The New York Times claims that Mr Biden now has the chance to “reimagine this deeply important but long-abused power” and make it work “as the founders intended: as a counterweight to unjust prosecutions and excessive punishments”. One such recommendation would be to create a pardoning commission staffed with criminal justice experts who can then advise the President on appropriate pardons. Currently, it is unclear what Mr Biden’s pardoning policy will be during his time as president but there are hopes for reform. 

The pardoning system could well change under the incoming Biden administration, hopefully becoming less politicised and more legally focused. However, under present law, despite the outcry from the UN, there will likely be no repercussions for the Blackwater Four as these pardons are completely legal in the US, despite strong ethical arguments against them. 

Report written by Dan Furniss

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