Hitting New Lows: Blair’s response to Archbishop Tutu

Nicholas Pentney 

Image © Skoll World Forum

In response to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call for him to stand trial in The Hague over the Iraq War, the former Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of the “morality of removing him [Saddam]” and reminded us that: “we have just had the memorials both of the Halabja massacre, where thousands of people were murdered in one day by Saddam’s use of chemical weapons.” He contrasted the horror of that massacre with present-day Iraq’s improved economic situation and reduced child mortality rates. Make no mistake; Blair was once again trying to argue that the Iraq War was actually a humanitarian intervention.

Attempting to justify the Iraq War on humanitarian grounds is nothing new. The principal architects of the invasion – Bush, Cheney, Straw and of course Blair – have been playing that particular card ever since  the official rationale for war (you know, the security threat that Saddam’s possession of WMDs and terrorist links posed) were found to be completely lacking in foundation. The humanitarian argument swayed many critics of the war especially after they struggled to answer the questions typically posed by the pro-war camp: didn’t Saddam Hussein deserve everything he got? Wasn’t he wicked? Didn’t the Iraqi people deserve to be free from him?

No one can doubt that Saddam was a monster, a tyrant and a criminal who needed to be brought to justice, but the full scale invasion of Iraq was no police action to capture a criminal. No police action involves endless bombings, the targeting of residential areas, the tolerance of looting and the deaths of thousands of civilians. There is no moral code under which such bloodshed and destruction could be acceptable in the pursuit of bringing a single criminal to justice. 

In response to the numerous and repeated humanitarian arguments that attempted to justify the Iraq War, Human Rights Watch (an organisation that isn’t averse to calling for intervention) broke with its own policy of neutrality and released a document entitled: “War in Iraq: Not a humanitarian intervention”. In it, the author Kenneth Roth draws specific attention to the way that humanitarian arguments must come before and not after the military intervention because the pre-intervention motivations will inevitably affect the way in which the intervention is carried out. In Iraq, that was evidenced by the use of cluster munitions and phosphorous which are indiscriminate and therefore easily disqualified as weapons of humanitarian intervention. Roth also points out that intervention is meant to stop “on-going or imminent widespread abuses.” In Iraq there were no on-going or imminent widespread abuses at the time of going to war. To be sure, there were instances in the past where humanitarian intervention would have been legitimate in Iraq but as Roth puts it: “’better late than never’ is not a justification.”

Blair’s invocation of a baseless humanitarian argument is bad enough but his citation of specific massacres and child mortality rates is something else. Take his reference to Halabja; the place where in 1988, Saddam used chemical weapons to murder thousands. As the world witnessed that and the other massacres of the Iraq-Iran war, the young MP for Sedgefield – a Mr Tony Blair – stayed silent and made no calls for humanitarian intervention to stop the bloodshed.  The Iraq-Iran War was a conflict in which the UK tacitly supported Saddam. At no point did Blair call upon his own party to challenge the Government’s position in this regard.

Blair is not wrong when he points out that Iraq’s child mortality levels are a third of what they were but he is wrong to imply that it was his heroic invasion that saved the children of Iraq. The reason why child mortality rates are so much lower today is down to the fact that the children of Iraq are no longer on the receiving end of devastating UK-backed sanctions. These sanctions resulted in child mortality rates that reached the levels of genocide – some estimates putting child deaths resulting from sanctions at 500,000. The invasion of Iraq may have seen the end of sanctions, but Blair can’t hold this up as a triumph for humanitarianism for two obvious reasons. Firstly, the process of invasion was bloody and likely killed Iraqi children at a far quicker rate than even the sanctions had been doing. Secondly, Blair could have called for an end of sanctions long before the invasion in 2003 but didn’t. When he became Prime Minister in 1997, Blair chose to continue his predecessor’s policy of firm support for the sanctions despite being made fully aware of the murderous affect the sanctions were having on Iraqi children and their failure to weaken Saddam and his Baathist regime. On one particularly disgraceful occasion, Blair allowed the blocking of a shipment of vaccines that were intended to protect the children of Iraq against diphtheria and yellow fever.  For Blair to have the support of these murderous sanctions on his record (if not his conscience) is bad enough but to later claim that his action saved the lives of Iraqi children sees the former Prime Minister well and truly hitting new moral lows.

I suspect Blair employs the argument of humanitarian intervention as it’s ever so slightly more difficult to discredit than the ridiculous argument that the Iraq War was mandated by UN Resolution 1441. Despite this, the fact remains that Iraq was not a humanitarian intervention but aggression. Aggression was the very crime that saw the Nazis hung in Nuremberg. As right as the likes of Desmond Tutu are to call for Blair to face trial it is likely that Blair will evade justice indefinitely whilst we find ourselves reminded of the timeless applicability of Thucydides’ maxim: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”


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