Lesley Riddoch: Blair seems like unfinished business

Tony Blair finding himself up in front of a war crimes tribunal is not something that’s likely to happen, writes Lesley Riddoch

Should Tony Blair face trial for war crimes? Desmond Tutu thinks he should – and despite his smiling demeanour and white collar, the retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town is no lightweight.

Last week, the Nobel Peace Prize winner inadvertently focused attention on Blair’s exorbitant speaking fees after pulling out of a conference in Johannesburg which both men were due to address. It emerged that Blair was paid £150,000 to attend while Tutu waived his fee – no wonder Nelson Mandela called the 81-year-old former church leader South Africa’s “moral compass”.

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This weekend, Tutu took his case further, arguing in a British Sunday paper that Tony Blair and George W Bush should face prosecution at the International Criminal Court in The Hague over the physical and moral devastation caused by the Iraq War.

Tutu asks: “Has the potential for terrorist attacks decreased? To what extent have we succeeded in bringing the so-called Muslim and Judeo-Christian worlds closer together? Surely greater costs have been exacted beyond the killing fields, in the hardened hearts and minds of members of the human family across the world?”

The veteran anti-apartheid campaigner evidently hit a nerve. One commentator claimed he had lost all moral authority by sitting on a charity board also advised by a militant member of Hamas. Other critics have cited the “terrorist origins” of Mandela and the current state of violence and lawlessness in ANC-led South Africa, where murder charges against colleagues of miners shot dead by the police were finally dropped yesterday.

Blair has also responded, arguing that he has been cleared several times of acting unlawfully, though the latest report from Lord Chilcot has been delayed by a Foreign Office appeal against disclosure of a key conversation between Blair and president Bush days before the invasion. The former Labour leader also maintains the health of Iraqi children is now better – not hard since US/UK-led sanctions had previously denied Iraqi children access to vital treatment – and Iraqis were unquestionably being massacred by Saddam.

Blair is also right when he concludes “this is the same argument we have had many times with nothing new to say”. Why then were a thousand comments posted on Tutu’s newspaper article before lunchtime? Why the furore if nothing new was being said?

Perhaps Western leaders had hoped the passage of time and support for the successful Libyan rebels would deflect world attention from the aftermath of Iraq.

Perhaps British citizens have grown accustomed to critiques of British involvement by Muslims, not Christians, Arab, not African leaders and from the powerless, not the articulate and universally respected. And perhaps Tutu’s salvo has force because his argument is generally right.

The Iraq war was probably illegal and unquestionably damaged world security. The question is how much was known at the time. If key cabinet documents remain withheld from public scrutiny, the world will get no answer. Nor can we ever know if some intervention short of all-out war would have given Saddam free rein in Iraq or prompted an early Arab Spring.

And yet, with a decade’s hindsight, some things seem clear. Iraq was a bad war for Iraqis, a bad war for the long-term security of British citizens, a bad war for Middle East stability and a bad war for the rule of international law. It was a bad war for Labour, a terrible war for public faith in government and a morale-sapping war for BBC News and Current Affairs.

In the wake of the controversial David Kelly case, independent-minded director-general Greg Dyke was forced to walk the plank, non-specialist BBC producers backed away from “controversial” subject matter and “outspoken” broadcasters were forced to choose between occasional written journalism or an un-opinionated broadcasting career.

The BBC – in London and Scotland – took a lurch to the safety-conscious, establishment-oriented side of the street and acquired a nervousness about new, deeply contentious or hard to explain social and political issues from which it has never fully recovered.

But some people had a good war, financially speaking at least. Arms companies, reconstruction firms and Blair himself, who has reportedly earned £11 million lecturing on various subjects including the post-Iraq terrorist threat.

There’s no evidence Blair has ever consciously acted in bad faith. It’s traditional for British former prime ministers to accept directorships or join the international talk circuit. In the US, the Jimmy Carter Foundation created a different public service model which has been followed by other ex-leaders like Bill Clinton. It didn’t happen here. But Tutu’s case against Blair is based on alleged criminal acts, not personal standards.

The archbishop cites the fabrication of evidence, wartime and post-conflict death tolls and double standards in war-crimes prosecutions at The Hague. So far the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal has tackled violations only in Africa, including the Sudan, Congo, Libya and Ivory Coast.

So could Britain’s second most controversial prime minister really be about to face trial? Human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman says a trial “should and could be held on the basis [that] a crime of aggression was committed [in] starting the war.” Former lord chancellor Lord Falconer believes the UN authorised the use of force – though many argue Resolution 1441 did not authorise war.

But let’s face it. Winners don’t get prosecuted. Losers do. Archbishop Tutu’s call is likely to remain just that – there is no groundswell behind prosecution. The International Criminal Court handles cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, not crimes of aggression and the US doesn’t even recognise its jurisdiction.

Even if prosecution is unlikely, however, the weekend debate proves Tony Blair is still unfinished business in the minds of British voters. He embodies the cocky, market-driven opportunism that’s dominated politics for two long decades. Blair perfected the British art of tackling fundamental inequalities by simply “doing wrong things righter”. Radical politics under his command was no more likely than radical legal action against him now.

By contrast, the former Icelandic prime minister has been prosecuted over his country’s banking collapse and the finance director of the Anglo Irish Bank is currently on bail pending trial. Politicians and top bankers elsewhere are held to account – but not here.

Once a leader, always a leader. Never mind a moral compass. It is the British way.