My weekly Guardian column is published today:
Years after America officially withdrew from the country it invaded in 2003, Iraq remains in chaos. The issue is largely ignored in the press these days, except for the occasional horrific tale of carnage. Nobody senior in the western world has found themselves in the dock defending their justifications for the war.
While examining the lack of legal oversight, the lack of planning or concern for the aftermath of the inevitable fall of Saddam Hussein, and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny preceding what amounted to a US war of aggression, it’s worth reflecting on the viability of making a peaceful, citizen’s arrest on former Australian prime minister John Howard for his central role in this story.
This idea has a clear and principled pedigree. In 2010, Guardian columnist George Monbiot initiated the ArrestBlair.org campaign for the purpose of rewarding anybody who made a peaceful citizen’s arrest of the former British leader. Blair was accused of “crimes against peace” and the crime of aggression. Because the political and media elites continue to insulate Blair and his colleagues from legal culpability over the Iraq war, alternative methods were required.
To this day, Iraqis are enduring insecurity, violence, kidnapping, sexual violence, extremism and terrorism. The legacy of the conflict is absolutely devastating. And yet the politicians who took America, Britain and Australia into the conflict work and play openly.
Howard, who led Australia into Iraq in 2003, remains a free man, lecturing around the world. He was given an award at Tel Aviv University this year for his “unwavering, courageous advocacy of the state of Israel spanning decades”, is often quoted in the media, and gave a talk at Sydney’s Lowy Institute in 2013 defending the morality of removing Hussein from power.
No apologies, no mea culpas and no serious questions followed. The vast bulk of the political elite prefers to ignore what transpired in 2003, and there are no serious calls to hold Howard accountable for alleged breaches of international law in joining George W Bush’s operation (Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry is a notable exception).
In Britain, the Downing Street memo revealed the illegality of the war without a UN resolution. In Australia Howard’s government, according to countless interviews with insiders at the time, had no interest in gaining advice about the legality of the enterprise. Blindly supporting the US alliance, and a desire to crush a former American ally, was paramount. Then defence department head Ric Smith has said that he “was not aware of any senior official advising against it [going into Iraq] in my time .” In reality, John Howard ministers took no advice before joining the war.
The head of the department of prime minister and cabinet, Peter Shergold, told journalist Paul Kelly in his 2009 book The March of the Patriots that “it would be wrong to think they [Howard and then foreign minister Alexander Downer] were not interested in advice but the advice they wanted … was about the conduct of the war and capabilities, not the decision to go to war.”
Britain’s Chilcot inquiry, yet to release its report amidst accusations of political interference, heard in 2010 that every senior legal advisor at the Foreign Office before the war concluded that it breached international law. Despite these damning facts, Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw are seemingly immune from prosecution or even serious investigation.
This is where the power of the people becomes vital, if for only symbolic reasons, to highlight the institutional failure of our nominally democratic system to hold the highest office bearers to account. International law must apply to all.
This January, Monbiot praised the latest individual who confronted Blair, at a restaurant in London, and wrote that:
It has already succeeded in doing two things: keeping the issue – and the memories of those who have been killed – alive, and sustaining the pressure to ensure that international law binds the powerful as well as the puny.
The evidence against Howard is long and detailed. He has continued to claim it was “near universal” that Saddam had WMDs and Iraq was therefore a threat to the world. In fact, countless officials, insiders,weapons inspectors and secret services questioned the accuracy of these “slam dunk” assessments. The head of Britain’s MI6 told Blair in 2002 that “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.” In Australia, senior intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie resigned in 2003 over his claims that Howard was abusing intelligence reports over Iraq. No independent legal advice was sought, and therefore the party cabinet decision on war was not a transparent process .
Even former Howard government minister, Nick Minchin, admitted in 2010 that he regretted Australia was “not able to be more successful in persuading the Bush administration to remain focused on Afghanistan rather than in opening up another front in Iraq.” Minchin argued that he “knew that the decision [to invade Iraq] having been made, Australia had to support it.” There was no mention of legal advice supporting Canberra’s entry into the conflict.
Margaret Swieringa, a senior Australian public servant who worked as a secretary to the federal parliamentary intelligence committee from 2002 until 2007, wrote in 2013 that Howard’s use of intelligence reports was fundamentally flawed. She knew, as an insider, that, “none of the government’s arguments [of Iraq’s apparent immediate threat] were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.”
A campaign to hold Howard to account wouldn’t be a stunt. It would be a serious attempt to keep the most devastating war in a generation in the public arena by reminding those most implicated that there is a price to be paid if such actions are ever repeated again.
A full public inquiry into the Iraq war, including the war powers used by Howard to take Australia into a conflict opposed by a great number of Australian people, is required.