10 Sep 2012

Blair on trial not as fanciful as it once seemed

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 225: Blair on trial not as fanciful as it once seemed / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
10 September 2012

Even if Tony Blair does not end up in the Hague, 25 countries have laws on their books against wars of aggression, writes Adekeye Adebajo

The recent spat after Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused to attend a leadership summit in Johannesburg on account of former British prime minister Tony Blair's presence was a fascinating clash between two establishment figures. Tutu withdrew from the conference charging that Blair had invaded Iraq in 2003 based on a "lie"; that he and then US president George Bush had acted like "playground bullies"; and that since 110,000 innocent Iraqis had been killed, Blair and Bush should be tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Tutu decried the double standards in which only Africans and Asians continue to be tried in the Hague (all 29 people indicted so far by the court have, in fact, been African).

Such stinging criticism has been levelled at Blair before, but none could have had the same effect as Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his leadership during the anti-apartheid struggle, and has been revered since as a moral beacon. Tutu has, however, sometimes been accused of "shooting from the hip". Last year, for example, he described President Jacob Zuma's administration as worse than the apartheid regime after the Dalai Lama was denied a visa to enter SA. Tutu's obsession with publicity is also curious, and Nelson Mandela's graceful exit from public life continues to contrast with his craving for the limelight. But was Tutu right to suggest Blair be tried in the Hague?

Blair was in power between 1997 and 2007 and was the most successful contemporary leader of the UK's Labour party. He contributed to peacemaking in Northern Ireland and oversaw Scottish devolution. However, he sometimes demonstrated a "muscular born-again Christianity" and sanctimonious self-righteousness. His preoccupation with poll-obsessed popularity lowered the tone of UK politics. The man who had at first been depicted as a wide-eyed cartoonish "Bambi" happily skipping around the forest would eventually earn the nickname "Bliar" from the British public, a million of whom protested his decision to go to war with Iraq. Many felt that he had acted in bad faith and misled parliament and the public. The largely plagiarised "dodgy dossier" and an earlier one that falsely claimed that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had the capacity to launch biological weapons within 45 minutes, were a particular nadir in this debacle.

The Iraq invasion was undertaken by Bush and Blair with the justification that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. United Nations (UN) inspectors had warned that no evidence for such weapons existed. That the invasion had failed to uncover any weapons made Blair's ex-post facto humanitarian justifications of the invasion appear absurd and dishonest. A war of aggression had been launched by two self-appointed sheriffs with a hurriedly gathered posse without the UN's blessing. Some of Blair's cabinet ministers and his attorney-general had warned him against waging the war without a UN mandate. Even western allies, France and Germany, opposed this hare-brained fiasco, an anachronistic neo-imperial attempt at "gunboat diplomacy". The British bulldog was portrayed as a US poodle, and it was clear that the key decisions had been taken in Washington, with London largely following Bush down a blind alley.

In his 2010 memoir, A Journey, and in his recent response to Tutu, Blair sought to justify the Iraq invasion on the grounds that Saddam's egregious human rights abuses justified the intervention. Quite aside from the difficulty of crusading western governments going around the world deciding which morally deficient leaders to topple, what Blair has failed to detail is the extent to which the West had armed and funded Saddam's chemical-weapon-fuelled war of aggression against Iran between 1980 and 1988, and condoned his gas-fuelled massacres against his own people. Neither elicited vocal condemnation from Saddam's western allies. He was the monstrous Frankenstein of cynical western scientists, a "mad dog" fed and sustained by both the US and Blair's own country. This history greatly discredits Blair's belated humanitarian justifications.

Blair can also be "tried" for often erroneously portraying himself as Africa's best friend. Like a modern-day missionary, he condescendingly described the continent as a "scar on the world's conscience" without any evident awareness of the offensiveness of such broad stereotyping. He paid a state visit to Africa only at the fag end of his premiership; supported autocratic regimes in Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda; and failed to fulfil promises on increasing aid to Africa.

Even if Blair does not end up in the Hague, about 25 countries have laws on their books against wars of aggression. His trial may therefore not be as fanciful as it once seemed. He must wish — as King Henry II once did about Thomas Becket — that someone would rid him of SA's troublesome priest.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and co-editor of The EU and Africa.

This article is the second in a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day every other Monday

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