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  August 4, 2017

UK Court Protects Tony Blair from War Crimes Prosecution

The UK High Court has blocked a war crimes prosecution against Tony Blair for the Iraq invasion, but that won't stop the effort to hold him accountable, says author and activist Chris Nineham
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Chris Nineham is an activist and author. He is vice chair of the Stop the War Coalition and author of The People Versus Tony Blair and the upcoming How the Establishment Lost Control.


AARON MATE: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. When is the supreme war crime not actually a crime? Well, perhaps when it's committed by the British government. Yes, that's the apparent decision made from the high court in London. The court has effectively terminated a private prosecution brought against former Prime Minister, Tony Blair and others for the Iraq invasion in 2003. The court determined that while customary international law does recognize the crime of aggression as the supreme war crime, no such offense exists under the law of England and Wales. Chris Nineham is Vice Chair of the Stop the War Coalition and author of The People Versus Tony Blair, as well as the forthcoming How the Establishment Lost Control. Chris, welcome.

CHRIS NINEHAM: Hi, Aaron. How are you?

AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. So you have a piece up called “Why the Blair Judgment is an Attack on Democracy.” Can you explain?

CHRIS NINEHAM: Well, I mean, I think there's a lot of cynicism about this judgment partly because the attorney general at the time of the Iraq war and the attorney general in Britain is the sort of main judge. He was of the view, and he told Tony Blair privately that he thought that actually the was such a crime as aggression under British law. That was a private opinion that he gave to Tony Blair, and so presumably he was kind of saying what he really thought about the law. The judge and the barristers in the case that is currently at law have also argued very persuasively that actually there's all sorts of previous examples of where the crime of aggression has been taken as being part of British law.

So I think there's a deep sense of skepticism about his judgment. Add to that the fact that there's been a 101 different attempts to stop this and other cases coming to court, in fact. The current attorney general tried to stop this case coming because he said that prime ministers should be immune or above the law. There was the talk about, ‘This case shouldn't be heard, because it might prejudice things that were supposed to be official secrets.’ So there's been a concerted and coordinated attempt to try and stop this attempt to get Tony Blair to justice and others by the establishment. Which I think if you tape them together, suggests that this isn't really about a matter, a technical question of the legal situation. It's actually much more about the establishment kind of closing ranks, because this issue of the Iraq war and this issue of Tony Blair's culpability is such a kind of an explosive question in British politics.

AARON MATE: Chris, on the legal aspect, you mentioned there being previous cases that would support this case currently brought against Blair, but didn't the court in this ruling cite a previous ruling from 2007?

CHRIS NINEHAM: Or 2006, I can't remember, but yes they did. But there's other cases that could be used and were used in court by the kind of prosecution case to try and prove the opposite. For example, Britain was fully and legally involved in the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the second World War. In that instance, the crime of aggression was constantly and frequently used as a means to convict people. That's just one example. There were a whole number of examples that were presented in the current case. At the very minimum, at the technical level, it's a moot point. I think that when you combine that fact with, as I say, the general sort of strategy of the [inaudible], which is despite the findings of the Chilcot Report, which was the report that came out last year, which was a damning report produced by independent inquiries of the establishment operation which showed in detail that Tony Blair did in fact break international law on a whole number of instances.

I think there's a feeling that that report has been kept as a dead letter. That report, for all its huge criticisms of Tony Blair and others around him, is not gonna be acted on in any way, and that's the impression, and that's the sort of feeling that people get in Britain, that this man is really above the law. He's been proved guilty. Everyone knows he's guilty of a whole stream of breeches of international law. The point is, he's not gonna get charged. There is gonna be no accountability, precisely because the politicians have worried about the level of scrutiny that puts them under in the future.

AARON MATE: Chris, it's interesting to compare what you say is an ongoing issue of Tony Blair's role in the Iraq war in Britain to how George W. Bush is looked at here in the US. Over the years we've seen things like attempted citizens’ arrest of Tony Blair. There is this case that we're talking about now. It's constantly talked about in the media. Compare that to the US where Bush recently has gone under this sort public image rehabilitation, especially because of the election of Donald Trump. When he's profiled in the media we hear about his paintings and so forth. He goes on the Ellen Show, even being embraced by liberals. But in Britain, activists like yourself have very much kept the focus on Tony Blair's record in Iraq and trying to hold him accountable. Can you talk about how that has played out so many years later after the initial invasion?

CHRIS NINEHAM: Well, I mean, there's two immediate reasons, I guess, for the difference. One is that Tony Blair has tried to continue to play a major role in, not just in British, but in international politics, which I guess George Bush hasn't done. I may be wrong about that. But that's one of the big problems is that apart from earning millions and millions of pounds off the back of his career as prime minister, he's also, he's been part of the Quartet Peace Operation in the Middle East [inaudible]. He's been playing all sorts of roles in a series of NGOs. He's always getting himself, and, by the way, being welcomed onto various different sort of top end discussion shows on the BBC and elsewhere. So he's tried to continue to play a central role sort of behind the scenes, but nevertheless central role in British politics.

I think that has really angered people. The other issue, I suppose, is that Britain has moved definitively to the left, really, in the last few years. I mean, it's a sort of complicated process, but the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and the fact that he did quite well in the general election, I think underlines this point that there's a very, very deep seated antiwar kind of anti-neoliberal mood in Britain nowadays at a popular level. I think Tony Blair is seen rightly by people as the main perpetrator of war, of the sort of series of wars that we've been involved in the last 15 or 16 years, and secondly as one of the great champions of free market privatizing politics, which are now being rejected by at least the majority of people in this country.

So he's a kind of convenient and justified kind of focus for people's anger and bitters. Because I think people feel that those years were terrible years for British society during the Iraq war and the sort of whole, the way in which the Labour Party, which is supposed to be a sort of democratic party became a kind of pale imitation of the Tory Party and pursued Tory economic as well as foreign policy objectives. I think people see that as a real low point that British society was dragged very, very low, and was now quite a gathering rebellion against them. So I guess that's the sort of broad brush strokes of it.

AARON MATE: Right. So on the point about the British establishment closing ranks to protect Blair from scrutiny, can you talk about how labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has broken from that?

CHRIS NINEHAM: Well, most importantly, just after he became leader of the Labour Party, and actually just after the Chilcot Report was made public last year, Jeremy Corbyn organized a kind of public and formal apology for the Iraq war, which was an apology to the Iraqi people. It was the apology to the British people, to the soldiers, to society in the world at large, really, to say, ‘This was a terrible mistake. It should never have happened.’ That was a very, very important, symbolic moment, because it marked a kind of turning point at least from the point of view of the Labour leadership and certainly the membership of the Labour Party that they really don't want to go back there.

And so that sort of changed the general sort of attitude towards these things. And so I think everyone knows that the Labour leadership is not supporting this attempt to coverup and to apologize and to somehow let Tony Blair off the hook. That's very, very important.

AARON MATE: Okay, Chris. Let me ask you about some of the criticism that I've seen about this attempt to prosecute Tony Blair. There's a piece by James Snell for the Middle East Eye which argues two things. One, that because the case was brought by an Iraqi general who served under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, it's ridiculous for someone like that to bring a case against an elected leader. And second of all, he says that even the idea of trying to prosecute an elected leader basically rewards dictators like Saddam Hussein who don't face the kind of legal scrutiny that someone like Tony Blair would in a democracy.

CHRIS NINEHAM: I think both those arguments are very, very difficult to understand even let alone to sustain. I mean, the main thing I'd say that article by the way before coming onto the argument is that this is written by someone who thinks that the Iraq war was a good thing and says so. So I mean, he's not really arguing a series of technical points. He's basically saying ... In fact, one of the things he says, one of the reasons he gives for thinking that it's a bad thing for politicians to be legally accountable is that it might make more wars more difficult. So that's very much, it's a very, very political ideological position he's taking, but on the substantive points you make, I mean, first of all, it seems to me that the law, it has always supposed to have an independent value, and it doesn't matter who brings a case to law, the case has to be looked at and judged on its merits, and that's surely an absolute basic principle of any kind of legal system that works.

Secondly, the idea that politicians shouldn't be accountable to the law, well, if they weren't then it would make a mockery of the whole ... I mean, one of the things, the main thing that politicians do is make laws. So is James Snell seriously saying those that make the law should somehow be immune from them? I mean, it doesn't make any sense at all. It's a ludicrous argument. As I say, what's really going on here, he doesn't like the idea. And this is what I meant by the whole thing about this is an attack on democracy. Really what this is about is it's about trying to limit the amount of scrutiny that various institutions in society can maintain on the political classes.

The problem is that it's true that there was a vote in Parliament in support of the Iraq war, but there were also some problems with that vote, and the main one was it was taken on the basis of false information that was deliberately supplied by Tony Blair and others to Parliament, in other words, lies. So it wasn't a vote that was based on any real understanding of the situation.

AARON MATE: That's right, Chris. When we talk about the Iraq war, we often forget that the invasion was in March 2003. Well, about a year before that in March 2002, it was then that Blair and Bush decided that they were going to invade Iraq and pursue regime change no matter what.

CHRIS NINEHAM: Yeah. Absolutely. It's incredible that this isn't more part of the current narrative, because this is completely documented, and the documents are in the public domain. An agreement was made, as you say, between the two main protagonists that this was going to war for a regime change. Now, war for regime change is illegal. That's the main thing about this story, but the other thing is that this decision was not reported to anyone pretty much in Britain. It certainly wasn't reported to Parliament. It wasn't reported even to the Cabinet, and clearly wasn't reported to the British people.

So Tony Blair was operating on the basis of a tight agreement for a war for regime change, which is illegal, and he didn't tell anyone. He claimed that he was still trying to make up his mind right up until the beginning of 2003 about whether to go to war or not.

AARON MATE: Right, Chris. So listen, we just have 30 seconds. So let me ask you finally, where does the movement to hold Blair accountable go from here?

CHRIS NINEHAM: Well, I mean, it will continue with various legal cases that are still in the pipeline. But I think the main thing is to keep up the pressure politically and to keep up the pressure in terms of protests and so forth. I mean, the truth of the matter is, Tony Blair can't really walk the streets of Britain without facing protests. The main purpose of this whole thing is to isolate him and to demoralize him and the people that support him and to try and make sure that anyone who thinks about doing something like this again will know that there will be a massive public reaction and their political career will be ruined. If we can't do that legally, we'll do it by protests and through political means.

AARON MATE: Chris Nineham, Vice Chair of the Stop the War Coalition, author of The People Versus Tony Blair, and the forthcoming book, How the Establishment Lost Control. His latest piece is called, "Why Blair Judgment is an Attack on Democracy.” Chris, thank you.

CHRIS NINEHAM: Thanks, Aaron.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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