Wednesday, 2 January 2008

How Britain became party to a crime that may have killed a million people

From George Monbiot in the Guardian, I think he sometimes waffles on about climate change but this article is one I agree with completely.

Not having a written constitution allowed Blair and his advisers to go to war without reference to parliament or the public

If you doubt Britain needs a written constitution, listen to the strangely unbalanced discussion broadcast by the BBC last Friday. The Today programme asked Lord Guthrie, formerly chief of the defence staff, and Sir Kevin Tebbit, until recently the senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, if parliament should decide whether or not the country goes to war. The discussion was a terrifying exposure of the privileges of unaccountable power. It explained as well as anything I have heard how Britain became party to a crime that may have killed a million people.

Guthrie argued that parliamentary approval would mean intelligence had to be shared with MPs; that the other side could not be taken by surprise ("do you want to warn the enemy you are going to do it?"), and that commanders should have "a choice about when to attack and when not to attack". Tebbit maintained that "no prime minister would be able to deploy forces without being able to command a parliamentary majority. In that sense, the executive is already accountable to parliament". Once the prime minister has his majority, in other words, MPs become redundant.

Let me dwell for a moment on what Guthrie said, for he appears to advocate that we retain the right to commit war crimes. States in dispute with each other, the UN charter says, must first seek to solve their differences by "peaceful means" (article 33). If these fail, they should refer the matter to the security council (article 37), which decides what measures should be taken (article 39). Taking the enemy by surprise is a useful tactic in battle, and encounters can be won only if commanders are able to make decisions quickly. But either Guthrie does not understand the difference between a battle and a war - which is unlikely in view of his 44 years of service - or he does not understand the most basic point in international law. Launching a surprise war is forbidden by the charter.

It has become fashionable to scoff at these rules and to dismiss those who support them as pedants and prigs, but they are all that stand between us and the greatest crimes in history. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg ruled that "to initiate a war of aggression ... is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime". The tribunal's charter placed "planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression" at the top of the list of war crimes.

If Britain's most prominent retired general does not understand this, it can only be because he has never been forced to understand it. In September 2002, he argued in the Lords that "the time is approaching when we may have to join the US in operations against Iraq ... Strike soon, and the threat will be less and easier to handle. If the UN route fails, I support the second option." No one in the chamber warned him that he was proposing the supreme international crime. In another Lords debate, Guthrie argued that it was "unthinkable for British servicemen and women to be sent to the International Criminal Court", regardless of what they might have done. He demanded a guarantee from the government that this would not be allowed to happen, and proposed that the British forces should be allowed to opt out of the European convention on human rights. The grey heads murmured their agreement.

Perhaps it is unfair to single out the noble and gallant lord. The British establishment's exceptionalism is almost universal. According to the government, both the Commons public administration committee and the Lords constitution committee recognise that decision-making should "provide sufficient flexibility for deployments which need to be made without prior parliamentary approval for reasons of urgency or necessary operational secrecy". You cannot keep an operation secret from parliament unless you are also keeping it secret from the UN.

Full story...

No comments: