Tony Blair could face prosecution yet – focus on oil and follow the money
'Government documents released this week spell out how Iraqi oil was a central motive behind the war'
British politicians and officials were nervous about being accused of war crimes, according to documents released as part of the Chilcot report. Tony Blair and Jack Straw knew of warnings about potential breaches of the Geneva and Hague conventions from the government’s own lawyers.
As Sir John Chilcot said, it was not his job to judge the legality of the Iraq war; but the extensive documentation and testimony viewed by the inquiry may well be enough to open up the possibility of prosecution. This evidence is considerably more damning than Chilcot’s “headline” conclusions.
Geoffrey Robertson rightly argued that it is not legally possible to put Tony Blair on trial in the international criminal court for a crime of aggression, because aggression was not included in the Rome statute that established the ICC. Joshua Rozenberg suggested that the focus should therefore be on cases against British soldiers for abuse of detainees. However, there is an alternative route to take Blair and his ministers to the ICC over their war crimes.
Under the Hague and Geneva rules, occupying powers are prohibited from fundamentally transforming the economy and political system of a country. Yet this is exactly what happened: the coalition provisional authority (CPA), through which the UK and US governed, forced through a series of major structural economic reforms, including the removal of product subsidies and protective trade barriers and other tariffs, a flattened tax system in which the richest and the poorest paid the same rate, and economic policies that threw Iraqi industry wide open to foreign investors. It also reformed the political system root and branch, creating a government structure based on sectarian identity, which arguably played a key role in stimulating the violence that continues to this day.
One Foreign and Commonwealth Office lawyer advised Blair in February 2004 that because “the extensive body of CPA legislation dealing with economic reform and governance was of questionable lawfulness … the risk of claims against the UK could not be ruled out”.
This issue had been contentious in the days leading up to the invasion. Concerns about the legality of the occupation were expressed in writing by several officials. In his memo to Blair on 26 March 2003, the attorney general Lord Goldsmith had warned that “wide-ranging reforms of governmental and administrative structures would not be lawful”. Meanwhile, Iraqi oil revenues were used to fund reconstruction, the majority of it carried out by US and UK contractors. Chilcot noted that by the end of the CPA’s first year of occupation, there were more than 60 UK companies working in Iraq, on contracts worth an estimated $2.6bn. To the victor, the spoils. Over $8bn of that Iraqi oil revenue was lost, unaccounted for in a process described thus by Blair’s representative in the CPA, Sir Jeremy Greenstock: “A lot of cash was going round in suitcases to be dispensed to Iraqis, not all of which was accounted for.”
The CPA also laid the groundwork for a fundamental restructuring of Iraq’s vast oil industry. While the period formally defined as occupation ended in June 2004, British troops remained in Iraq for a further five years. The official narrative was that they were there at the invitation of sovereign Iraqi governments, but those nominal governments were successively appointed, promoted or defined by the US and UK.
Contrary to Blair’s protestations, government documents released this week spell out how Iraqi oil was a central motive behind the war. Throughout the six years that British troops remained in Iraq, the UK consistently maintained two objectives in relation to oil: to transfer oil from public ownership to multinational companies, and to ensure BP and Shell got a large share of it. While the post-2004 phase may escape the formal legal definitions, it raises important political and ethical questions.
The Blair government knew this oil plan was not what Iraqis wanted. A September 2004 strategy paper quoted by Chilcot noted that the UK’s oil agenda was “politically sensitive, touching on issues of sovereignty”. Without recognising any conflict, it recommended that Britain “push the message on [foreign direct investment] to the Iraqis in private, but it will require careful handling to avoid the impression that we are trying to push the Iraqis down one particular path”.
The question that now must be contemplated is whether the war crimes we have described under the CPA constitute “pillage” – and whether, in the terms of the Rome statute, they constitute grave breaches.
After the Chilcot report was launched, the SNP’s Alex Salmond and Labour’s Paul Flynn both stated that a prosecution of Blair was now in order. The decisions to reshape Iraq’s economy, especially oil, in UK interests may provide the grounds to do so. Certainly there is a great deal of incriminating evidence and a serious case to answer.
Source: The Guardian