War crimes in Iraq

By Warwick Smith

As the recent news from Iraq refocuses our attention on the basket case that we, the invaders, left behind, it’s an appropriate time to re-examine our decision to invade in 2003. In any kind of objective examination of the lead up to the invasion it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was a war of aggression, the greatest of all crimes under international law. However, this remains an opinion because it has never been seriously investigated as a war crime. In fact, none of the leaders of the countries who invaded Iraq have faced any serious consequences for leading their countries to war using false justifications.

Here in Australia, the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, has never had to front any serious inquiry nor been obliged to answer any probing questions about his decision to wage a war of aggression. It’s time that he did. If war crimes by the strong are never prosecuted then international law is not an instrument of justice but one of coercion and domination.

“To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Nuremberg Tribunal – October 1, 1946

A quick recap to explain why I believe the invasion of Iraq was a war of aggression, the greatest crime possible under international law. In the lead up to the war our leaders claimed that the regime of Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) including chemical and biological weapons and that they were attempting to make nuclear weapons. For the most part, demands for evidence for these allegations were resisted. Instead the would-be invaders relied on Iraqi non-compliance with Security Council resolutions as a kind of negative proof. The narrative was along these lines: “Iraq will not fully cooperate with weapons inspectors therefore they must have WMD and must be about to give them to al Qaida to kill westerners. Therefore we have no choice but to invade in self-defence.”

This narrative used to justify invasion never, at any point, stood up to serious scrutiny. Not before the invasion and certainly not after. That’s why there were public protests of unprecedented scale against the invasion.

The doomed push for UN authorisation for the invasion culminated in the US finally agreeing to reveal their evidence of Iraqi WMD. The now infamous speech delivered by Colin Powell at the United Nations presented a series of blurry satellite photos and questionable testimonies from ex-pat Iraqi’s who had serious vested interests in a western intervention. Much of what Colin Powell said that day was immediately refuted by people who had been on the ground in Iraq with the international inspection teams and what was left was at best speculation and at worst lies and exaggerations. Colin Powell’s close advisor and aid, Lawrence Wilkerson, later stated that this speech at the UN speech was the lowest moment in his life, all but admitting he believed at the time that the intelligence was flawed. Powell himself calls it a “blot on his career”.

So, even before the war began we knew that the justification for the invasion was flawed and was a fig leaf for something else. After the invasion all of this was confirmed and more. There were no WMD in Iraq and there had been no threat to the invading nations.

The invaders quickly changed the justification of the invasion from WMD to spreading democracy, not a beat was missed. When the issue of WMD was brought up they were quick to blame the intelligence agencies. Then we discover that Donald Rumsfeld had been applying intense pressure to his intelligence agencies to come up with evidence that would justify and invasion. They tried and tried and tried and the best they could do was the deeply flawed presentation given by Powell at the UN.

The intelligence clearly wasn’t enough to justify war so, when it came to convincing their own population, the US administration relied on bald-faced lies. Along with the lies, another strategy was to constantly mention 9-11 and Iraq or Saddam Hussein in the same sentence. They never directly said that Saddam was involved in the terrorist attacks in 2001 but the constant association between the two meant that by the time of the invasion 45% of Americans thought that there were Iraqis on the flights on September 11 2001 (there were not) and 44% thought that Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist plot. Quite a propaganda accomplishment.

The story from Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister at the time of the invasion, was even worse. He released “the dossier” which supposedly contained the evidence of Iraq’s WMD programs and it turned out to contain plagiarised sections from a 12 year old PhD thesis, unsubstantiated speculation and cherry picked information designed to justify an invasion.

All that is important context and demonstrates that the war of aggression was not waged for the reasons that we were given. However, the most damning argument comes from what results if we assume everything that was said before the war was true and assume that those saying it really believed it. The simple fact is that it would still have been a war of aggression and therefore a war crime. Even if Saddam had massive stockpiles of WMD, it would not be justification for the use of force without UN Security Council authorisation. Such force is only justified when it is used to prevent an imminent attack. Not only was there no evidence of such an attack, any kind of aggression by Saddam Hussein against the west would have been suicidal on his part given the scale and ferocity of the retaliation. Saddam may have been a megalomaniac monster but he was a survivor, not the type to commit ideologically driven suicide.

Some made the claim that Saddam would give his WMD to al Qaida to use to attack the US. Such a claim could only be believed by people who knew virtually nothing about Saddam Hussein and al Qaida. Saddam was listed among the infidel leaders in Arab lands who al Qaida had sworn to topple. Not exactly the brothers in arms that Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others tried make them out to be.

The validity of international law has been seriously compromised by the perpetration of war crimes by the US, UK and Australia. Russia can quite legitimately point to the invasion of Iraq as demonstration of hypocrisy when the US and UK try to rebuke them for their activities in Georgia. Why should any country, particularly those who have permanent membership on the UN Security Council, pay attention to international law if the US, UK and Australia do not?

There is a group here in Australia currently calling for an independent inquiry into Australia’s decision to go to war in Iraq. I fully support this cause. There are several critical principles at stake. The first is the integrity of international law, as mentioned above. The second is the role of democracy in state violence. There was massive public opposition to our involvement in the invasion of Iraq, as there was in the UK. Our politicians lied and exaggerated their way to war and have never been held accountable for it. What claims can we make about being a civilised nation that believes in the rule of law when things like this can happen with no consequences for the perpetrators?

Yes, there should be an independent inquiry into the decision to go to war. That inquiry should also forward its findings to The Hague for use in investigating possible war crimes committed by our political leaders. If laws are to be meaningful they must apply to the strong as well as the weak.

Warwick Smith is an economist, writer and commentator. He blogs at reconstructingeconomics.com and tweets @RecoEco

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