Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in town this week to address a leadership summit in Johannesburg. He may want to watch his back, though: a group called the Society for the Protection of our Constitution has launched an urgent application to the NPA to issue a warrant for Blair’s arrest for the 2003 Iraq invasion. By REBECCA DAVIS.
If Tony Blair secretly yearns for the quiet life, he hides it well. Since his resignation as Prime Minister in 2007, he has seemed busier than ever: serving as a Middle East peace envoy, consulting to a number of corporations, launching his own charity and an interfaith foundation and touring the world as a private speaker. It is with this latter role that he travels to South Africa this week, to address the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre.
The event, which has the tagline: “Intellectual Capital. Shared”, describes its aims thus: “In the knowledge economy, those who best understand today’s economic, political and social challenges are the ones who succeed. They are also the ones who can discern the true value of Intellectual Capital.” Discovery’s financial heft has helped line up a stellar roster of speakers: Blair appears alongside the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, UK supermarket guru Sir Terry Leahy and the co-CEO of Goldman Sachs International, Richard Gnodde.
Also on the speakers’ list is Russian chess grandmaster and opposition politician Garry Kasparov, who for a while looked unlikely to attend after being detained by Russian authorities on 17 August following his attendance of a rally in support of imprisoned feminist punk band Pussy Riot. Kasparov was unexpectedly acquitted of all charges by the Khamovniki court on Friday, however, so it looks like he’ll be free to travel after all.
Past speakers at the conference have included former US Vice President Al Gore, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, ABSA group CEO Maria Ramos, and Mvelaphandla Holdings’ Tokyo Sexwale. A “standard” ticket to the day-long conference costs R5,760, with a “premium” going for R7,200. (“Premium” holders get chocolates, pens and preferential seating; “Standard” ticket-holders get mints and schoolroom-style seating. There’s also a VIP option, price unspecified, which ensures you a personal introduction to the speakers.)
It would be interesting to know how much Blair will be taking home from this gig. It has been claimed that he is one of the most expensive public speakers in the world, allegedly commanding fees of up to £6,000 a minute. In March this year it was reported that the Stanford University students’ association approached Blair to give a talk and were quoted $50,000 for security and transport costs alone. In addition, British tabloids claimed late last week that Blair continues to cost the British taxpayer around £400,000 per year: he draws the maximum Prime Ministerial pension of £70,000 (allegedly declined by successor Gordon Brown for being too generous), receives a £115,000 allowance for carrying out his public work and has a permanent security detail costing at least £250,000 per year.
The reason for that high security bill is that Blair may be a big-name draw, but he also has a chequered reputation, and where he travels, trouble often follows. Earlier this month it was reported by the Mail & Guardian that the South African Muslim Network executive committee was unhappy about Blair being given a platform by the Discovery Summit to lecture on leadership, given his role in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The newspaper reported the committee was in talks about protest actions that might be taken if Blair were to arrive, including marches and sit-ins. They said at the time they were investigating the feasibility of having a warrant of arrest issued against him.
Now a group called the Society for the Protection of Our Constitution has gone one step further, announcing Sunday it had launched an urgent application to the National Prosecuting Authority to have a warrant of arrest issued for Blair for the allegedly illegal authorisation of the Iraq War.
The claim that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal is fairly widely held, and is based on the fact that Blair (and George W Bush) failed to obtain authorisation from the UN Security Council beforehand. Leaked memos from 2002 have shown that then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw informed Blair the proposed invasion would not meet the criteria required for legality. A key requirement for a legal war is that it must be declared by a state anticipating or experiencing an armed attack, a scenario subsequently found not to be the case in the Iraq war. Blair also admitted that he disregarded the initial warning of his attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, that the invasion would be illegal.
The BBC has reported that US Department of Defence tallied 4,487 US military personnel killed in Iraq between March 2003 and July 2010. It reported 179 British soldiers dying in the same period and cited sources suggesting between 97,461 and 106,348 Iraqi civilians were killed in that span.
In November 2011, a body called the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission conducted a tribunal to try George W Bush and Tony Blair in absentia for crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and genocide. The tribunal was presided over by five judges and included representations on behalf of the defendants made by court-appointed defence counsel. The unanimous verdict found Bush and Blair guilty, but acknowledged the verdict was non-enforceable, though the findings were reported to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The neutrality of proceedings were questionable, however, as the tribunal was the initiative of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is staunchly anti-West and has accused the ICC of bias in terms of the figures it chooses to prosecute.
The official UK government inquiry into the Iraq War, the Chilcot Inquiry, is only set to release a report late into 2013, which will run more than 1-million words (twice the size of War and Peace). Part of the delay is due to a row over whether Cabinet officials are willing to publish certain sensitive documents, such as notes passed between Blair and Bush, and records of their conversations.
The inquiry held public hearings between the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2011 on matters including the background to the war. When Blair came to testify, in January 2010, the British public were electrified as to whether he would express regret about the war. It was only at the end of his testimony that he got down to this question. “I feel, of course, I had to take this decision as Prime Minister and it was a huge responsibility then, and there is not a single day that passes by that I don’t reflect and think about responsibility, and so I should,” he said. “But I genuinely believe that if we had left Saddam in power, even with what we know now, we would still have had to have dealt with him, possibly in circumstances where the threat was worse and possibly in circumstances where it was hard to mobilise any support for dealing with that threat.”
“And no regrets?” the inquiry Chairman then pushed.
“Responsibility, but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein. I think he was a monster,” Blair replied. “I believe he threatened not just the region but the world.”
Earlier this year, Blair attracted criticism again when he appeared before the Leveson Inquiry into UK media ethics to give evidence about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch (known to be close, because Blair is the godfather to Murdoch’s daughter Grace). It had emerged that Blair had taken time off from his busy PM’s schedule to make three phone calls to Murdoch in the build-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. It is now widely believed the purpose of these calls was to lobby Murdoch for positive press coverage of the war. Blair denied this at the inquiry, saying, “I would have been wanting to explain what we are doing. I don’t think there’s anything particularly odd about that.”
At his Leveson hearing, Blair was nonetheless confronted by a protestor from the Alternative Iraq Inquiry bursting into the room to yell “This man is a war criminal!” Over the past few years he has also been subjected to at least four attempts by members of the public to issue a citizen’s arrest on him for war crimes, spurred by the Arrest Blair website, which is currently advertising Blair’s attendance at the Johannesburg summit. The website, established by environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot, collects donations to financially reward anyone who attempts to carry out a peaceful citizen’s arrest on Blair.
Given the fact that Blair has been dealing with these issues for more than five years, then, news that certain South African quarters are unhappy with his attendance at the leadership summit is unlikely to come as much surprise to him.
What may surprise him, however, is the confidence with which the Society for the Protection of our Constitution is approaching their legal bid. The Daily Maverick Sunday spoke to Salman Khan, a spokesman for Zehir Omar, a lawyer for the organisation, rather than the Society as a whole. When asked whether the Society’s legal bid had any chance of success, he replied: “Big, big. The persons behind it are heavyweights of South African society. The research has been extensive, the dossier is big and anyone of juridistic mind can see that it will be successful.”
The Society for the Protection of Our Constitution has had an eclectic record of concerns up till now. Some of the issues it has successfully tackled have been prosaic: in June 2011 it secured a court order against the mayor of the Victor Khanye Local Municipality in Mpumalanga to force it to repair potholes.
In March last year, the Society launched a legal objection to the Muslim Marriages Bill, calling it anti-Islamic and saying sharia law was not compatible with the Constitution. Among the concerns it cited at the time was that the bill might be amended in line with the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage, prohibited by Islam.
Most curiously, however, in November 2008 it appealed to the Cape High Court to delay the hearing of the NPA appeal against the scrapping of Jacob Zuma’s corruption charges, saying the court date should be changed till after the 2009 elections because Zuma would not be able to campaign effectively while having to deal with a court case at the same time. At the time, the M&G reported that the Society announced that all its members were ANC members.
The affidavit in the Blair matter, seen by the Daily Maverick, states “the various actions by Tony Blair fit in with the definitions of inter alia, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes and Crimes of Aggression and warrant his arrest upon him setting foot in South Africa due to our obligation via our requirement to uphold the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court”.
“Blair invaded with no backup from the UN or the UK parliament. He went against the wishes of the masses,” Khan said, claiming the invasion was motivated partly by a desire to appease the US and partly by interest in Iraq’s oil reserves. “American foreign policy for the past 100 years has been motivated by dependence on oil,” he said.
Khan said the group expected to hear back from the NPA by Monday afternoon, and if its bid failed, the next step would be an interdict from the High Court. They will also be organising a protest outside Discovery’s Johannesburg headquarters Thursday afternoon, though Khan was at pains to stress that the beef was not with Discovery, which is merely hosting Blair.
If legal channels fail, would the group consider attempting a citizen’s arrest? “Of course yes!” Khan replied. “There will be hundreds. Not for the money,” he added (referencing the bounty up for grabs from the Arrest Blair website), “but to send a strong message.” Are there any other world leaders they would like to see similarly prosecuted for war crimes? “Anyone involved in an illegal invasion,” he said.
Neither Discovery nor the NPA responded to comment on the issue of Blair’s arrest warrant on Sunday. Given South Africa’s infamous timidity when it comes to rocking the boat with international figures, however, it seems highly unlikely that the Society’s appeal will come to anything. In all likelihood, the worst Blair can probably expect is some accusations yelled at him from afar by protestors. DM
- Anger grows over invite to Tony Blair, in the M&G
Photo: Former Prime Minister Tony Blair waves as he leaves a Diamond Jubilee lunch with Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and John Major at Downing Street in central London on July 24, 2012. REUTERS/Olivia Harris