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War crimes: Why should Bush, Blair and Obama be exempt?

by R Jagannathan  Sep 3, 2012 13:44 IST

#Barack Obama   #Desmond Tutu   #George Bush   #Tony Blair   #War Cimes  

By any normal definition, they would fit the definition of terrorists. They can decide to attack whoever they choose and cause untold human suffering. They can bomb and bury hundreds of unnamed enemies that would be called genocide in any saner world. And they can even order assassinations of specific people, including their own countrymen.

But we are not talking al-Qaeda or LTTE or any such group that everyone considers beyond the pale. They are, in fact, the leaders of the free world – America and Britain.

Should Bush and Blair face trial? Reuters

Thus far, nobody beyond fringe Left groups has had the gumption to tell it like it is. Now, a widely-respected Nobel Peace Prize winner has done what no one else has: call George W Bush and Tony Blair to account for the sufferings of the people of Iraq and other countries they launched a war against.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa recently pulled out of a leadership summit in Johannesburg when he heard that Tony Blair would be addressing the meeting. His reason: Both Bush and Blair went to war in Iraq on the basis of a lie – that they had detected weapons of mass destruction in that country, which turned out to be false – and must thus answer for their crimes (Read what he wrote in The Observer here).

Tutu, a leading light of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and a key member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appointed to investigate human rights abuses during the White racist regime, believes that there is a good case for trying both George Bush and Tony Blair before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

If African despots and Eastern European ethnic cleansers can be hauled up before the international court, why not Blair and Bush?

Wrote Tutu: “On what grounds do we decide that Robert Mugabe should go to the International Criminal Court, Tony Blair should join the international speakers' circuit, bin Laden should be assassinated, but Iraq should be invaded, not because it possesses weapons of mass destruction, as Mr Bush's chief supporter, Mr Blair, confessed last week, but in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein?”

To be sure, the US can’t hauled up before The Hague because it is a superpower and hence makes it own rules. Moreover, the US has decided not to allow its nationals to be tried by any court outside the US for international crimes.

But Tutu is not one to pull his punches. Pointing out that over 110,000 Iraqis have been killed since Bush went to war in 2003, Tutu says that “on these grounds alone, in a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in The Hague.”

To which, Blair could only manage the usual arguments – that the decision to invade Iraq was based on information they had of weapons of mass destruction at that time, and which later turned out to be false.

The Guardian quotes him as saying that Tutu is “completely wrong” on Iraq. “I have a great respect for Archbishop Tutu's fight against apartheid – where we were on the same side of the argument – but to repeat the old canard that we lied about the intelligence is completely wrong as every single independent analysis of the evidence has shown. And to say that the fact that Saddam massacred hundreds of thousands of his citizens is irrelevant to the morality of removing him is bizarre.”

But Blair was being disingenuous in pretending that Tutu was ignoring Saddam Hussein’s murderous side. What Tutu pointed out was that “the cost of the decision to rid Iraq of its by-all-accounts despotic and murderous leader has been staggering,”

The more important issue is this: can the powerful sit in judgment on the less powerful, when they will not play by the same rules they impose on others?

To date, the French and the Brits have paid no price for the depredations of their colonial enterprise, including many countries in Africa and Asia.

Even today, the US continues to believe it can order any assassination, and use any weapon, to strike at anyone it decides is a threat to the US.

Tutu is, in fact, being circumspect in singling out only Blair and Bush, when President Obama continues to tread the same path of unilateral killings in the name of tackling terror.

Apart from the well-known assassination of Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, the US has over the last eight years killed possibly upto 3,000 people in Afghanistan through drone attacks on suspected militants, and as many as 15 percent of these killings may not even be terrorists or militants. That means 450 murders of possibly blameless people (read here)– collateral damage in this war on terror.

If Bush and Obama are not accountable for these wrongful deaths, who is?

The US also maintains a list of people who can be assassinated on the same ground – as a potential terror threats – and the list can include American citizens too.

The Washington Post reported in 2010 that the CIA had put Anwar al-Awlaki, an American al-Qaeda militant who is alleged to have attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound airline, on a “kill or capture” list.

Little wonder, al-Awlaki was assassinated in October 2011. Killing American citizens needs sanction directly from the US President, and Obama apparently sanctioned his killing.

When Obama gave the go-ahead a year earlier, the Post quoted CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano without irony: "This agency conducts its counter-terrorism operations in strict accord with the law."

Anthony Gregory, writing for the Center for Research on Globalisation portal, quotes a Reuters report confirming the existence of a secret group that authorises such assassinations.

“American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials. There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House’s National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.”

If there is no law establishing this assassination committee, one wonders why the CIA thinks it is operating within the four corners of the law. The only purpose of the group apparently is to generate the kill list, and the only safeguard is Obama’s signature, if the killing of an American citizen is involved. Killings of non-Americans can apparently be done by the committee, at will.

Archbishop Tutu’s comments may have jarred sensibilities in the US and Britain, where the powerful are used to sitting in judgment rather than being judged themselves, but it is clear that his call for trying Bush and Blair does not go far enough.

President Obama’s actions and assassination panels cannot be exempt from the world’s scrutiny and may not be some day.

Nothing, of course, is going to happen now. But Tutu’s truth cannot remain buried forever in the shifting sands of international power equations.