10 years on: the elephant in the room the media still won't mention: Iraq was a war crime
March 9, 2013In all the words churned out by journalists marking 10 years since the invasion of Iraq, one remains apparently taboo: crime.
News reports list "failures", "setbacks" and "lessons" for "the West", but there's never a line of background saying the people who started the war are now criminally liable.
Outspoken columnists rue the "catastrophe", "horror" and "obscenity" of the war, which killed hundreds of thousands of those it was meant to be helping. But few find space to mention criminality. The timid still passively say "mistakes" were made.
News reports list "failures", "setbacks" and "lessons" for "the West", while relating "sectarian tensions" that could yet split Iraq into several countries. But there's never a line of background saying the people who started the war are now criminally liable.
Of course, reporters wouldn't be objective if they used "emotive" labels. Style guides warn them off this sort of thing. At Reuters news agency, where "freedom from bias" is an in-house mantra, it's known as "overlaying our own prejudices" on a story.
Or as the Channel 4 Newsreader Jon Snow explained when I asked why he wouldn't call Tony Blair a war criminal: "We shall do so the moment someone like you manages to persuade the war crimes people in The Hague to bring a case." However compelling the evidence, stating it baldly would be biased, whereas sweeping it under the carpet somehow isn't.
Most reporters agree. They used similar logic to play down attempts to have Blair impeached. Since there weren't enough members of parliament backing the plan to make it work, it was covered as news in brief, or plain ignored. Doing otherwise would have been labelled as crusading, not working to uphold the rule of law.
Long after Blair had resigned, not much had changed. The Guardian noted last year that he was "pursued by protesters everywhere - some have even tried to arrest him." Its response was not to assist them in their efforts, but to ask: "Who are these people, and what drives them?" As if demanding simple justice were unhinged.
In 2005, the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland railed at MPs for not holding the prime minister to account, in terms that also applied to his employers: "There is no outrage, just a shrug of the shoulders." This column was buried on page 31 of the paper, which had earlier published a book called The War We Could Not Stop. Labour's Clare Short described its contents as "predominantly the authorised Downing Street version".
Two years later, the Guardian's security editor, Richard Norton-Taylor, wrote a play, which heard arguments for putting Blair on trial. "Committees in parliament are pretty weak," he said. "So we decided to have a hearing ourselves, in the theatre." But not on the front of the leading liberal newspaper, which could have at any time laid out the case for prosecution, while revealing what prevents one being brought.
TV is worse. Apart from a one-off panel chat on Newsnight, and comments from the audience on Question Time, the BBC has sidestepped criminality. Like the Guardian, Channel 4 preferred a sideways take, screening a satire that ended with Blair being flown to The Hague. Dismissing ideas for a serious documentary, the man who commissioned it said: "There's nothing worse than the dripping sore of a whining intellectual who complains."
Perhaps mindful of this, Norton-Taylor's play was nuanced. "For me it's quite obvious what Blair has done and what have been the consequences," he said. "However, to say that he's committed a particular kind of international crime or war crime is a jump."
A Foreign Office lawyer was more forthright. When she resigned at the start of the war, Elizabeth Wilmshurst wrote: "an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression," one of the "crimes against peace" for which Nazis were hanged at Nuremberg.
As the tribunal's American prosecutor said, starting a war for any reason other than self-defence 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." He stressed: "the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgement."
The Nuremberg Principles, drawn up in 1950, criminalised "a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances." The International Criminal Court in The Hague has jurisdiction over these crimes, but signatory states won't allow prosecutions until 2017, and retroactive charges can't be pressed.
It's been clear all along in the United Nations charter: war is legal if you first "seek a solution by negotiation" and "an armed attack occurs against [you]" afterwards. The only other defence is the backing of the UN Security Council. In the absence of that, invading Iraq was illegal, as the government's own advisers always argued, until they were told to do the opposite.
For Blair to be put in the dock for the crime of aggression, the UK would have to pass it into law, or a country that did so already would need to request his extradition. For either to happen, public protest is required. But if the crime is effectively normalised by the media, it could be tough to build momentum.
One exception is the Guardian's George Monbiot, who runs a fund rewarding anyone attempting a citizen's arrest of the former prime minister. Monbiot concedes this is "symbolic", but a man who confronted Blair still sees the point. "It is important that the pressure is maintained," Tom Grundy said, "that the media spotlight is constant."
If reporters had written of crimes before the war, it would have been harder to ignite. Instead, they became the invasion's "complicit enablers," to quote a former White House spokesman. Having failed to set agendas for themselves, they wound up serving someone else's.
The worst offender was The New York Times, which pumped out propaganda on Iraq's non-existent "weapons of mass destruction". These lies could have been refuted at the time, with facts already available to the public. And the paper should have framed its stories differently. When the war began, it was branded one of the "most ambitious military ventures since Vietnam". World opinion was buried away in a passing aside: "Germany, France and Russia have declared that the war is, in essence, illegal".
It would have been factual and no less objective to write: "America and Britain defied the international community on Wednesday, launching an attack on Iraq that repeats, in essence, the crime of aggression for which Nazis were hanged after World War II."
To most editors, this would sound "unfit to print". That tells us how little was learned these past 10 years.
Daniel Simpson has worked for Reuters and The New York Times. He's the author of A Rough Guide to the Dark Side, the story of why he abandoned his career.