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Chilcot Report and How Democracy Actually Works in the West

The way to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions

Radha D’Souza (R.Dsouza1@westminster.ac.uk) is with the School of Law, University of Westminster, London.

The Chilcot report shows that democratic governance is about selling decisions made by a small coterie of men in suits in international corridors of power to the state and the nation. The report stops short of attributing intentional wrongdoing to Tony Blair. 


Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle on Salisbury Plain; Crown copyright 2016

 

 

I impeach Warren Hastings, Esquire, of high crimes and misdemeanors. I impeach him in the name of the Commons of Great Britain in Parliament assembled, whose parliamentary trust he has betrayed.  I impeach him in the name of all the Commons of Great Britain, whose national character he has dishonored.  I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights and liberties he has subverted; whose properties he has destroyed; whose country he has laid waste and desolate. I impeach him in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated. I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured and oppressed, in both sexes, in every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.

 

These were the words of British MP Edmund Burke in an impassioned speech to the British Parliament in 1788, in impeachment proceedings he initiated against Warren Hastings, Governor General of Bengal, for the death, destruction and mayhem that he had brought upon India in the wars against the Rohillas, Marathas, Mysore, Benares and Bengal.

Now, substitute Iraq for India, Tony Blair for Warren Hastings, Ahmed Chalabi and the likes of him for Mir Quasim and his likes, the trial and execution of Nand Kumar with that of Saddam Hussein, the series of parliamentary inquiries against Hastings with those against Blair, and South Asian readers should feel the pulse of the voluminous Chilcot report on the Iraq war without difficulty. The clamour to bring Blair to justice grows louder.

Curiously, days before the scheduled release of the Chilcot report, prosecutors at the International Criminal Court ruled out bringing Blair to trial, but nevertheless kept open the option of bringing British soldiers to justice for possible war crimes in Iraq. Scottish leaders have indicated they will explore possibilities of bringing Blair to justice in Scotland. Talks of impeachment proceedings float in the corridors of Parliament.

It might bring some sobriety to the clamour if we recall that the impeachment of Hastings dragged on for seven years from 1787 to 1795 at the end of which he was acquitted. The trial concluded that although Hastings had caused destruction and mayhem in India, his intentions were good. The Chilcot report says the same about Blair. The terrible things that happened to Iraq and the Middle East notwithstanding, Blair believed he was doing it for the good.  

The way to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. After lurking on the sidelines of British politics for sometime, Hastings was made member of the Privy Council in 1814 and lived to write his memoirs. Shall we await the publication of Lord Blair’s memoirs in the future?

 

Chilcot Inquiry In Context

 

The Chilcot inquiry, named after Sir John Chilcot a senior civil servant who headed the inquiry, addresses one of the most controversial political decisions that the UK government has made in recent times: the decision by former Prime Minister Tony Blair to go to war in Iraq in 2003. The Chilcot report is the fourth inquiry on the Iraq war. The first inquiry was in 2003 on intelligence failures, the second called Hutton inquiry, investigated the circumstances of the death of David Kelly, a scientist and member of the UN weapons inspection team, and the third—Butler inquiry in 2004 turned once more to intelligence failures and intelligence services. The Hutton inquiry dented the reputation of the BBC from which it is yet to recover. The Chilcot inquiry is the most exhaustive of the four.

The Chilcot inquiry was initiated by Tony Blair’s successor Gordon Brown in 2009. The report, released on Wednesday 06 July 2016, is in twelve volumes, uses 2.6 million words, reviews 150,000 documents, examines more than 150 witnesses and cost around £10 million. The inquiry was supposed to culminate in two years. The publication of the report was delayed by the intervening elections in 2010, by arguments over whether certain sensitive communications between President George W Bush and Tony Blair should be published, and finally by the Brexit referendum.

The inquiry follows a sustained campaign by families of 179 service men and women who died in the war, and believe that their loved ones had been dragged into a war that was illegal and unjustified: illegal because it did not have the approval of UN Security Council, and unjustified because Iraq had not threatened British security or national interests. Rather it was driven by Blair’s desire to keep UK’s “special relationship” with the US at any cost.

 

Opposition to the War

 

The invasion of Iraq was hugely unpopular in the UK. In 2003, 1.6 million people demonstrated across the UK against the war, one million of them in London, in what is considered as the largest political protest in the UK in the post-War era. The Blair government allowed the protests but went ahead with the decision to invade Iraq anyway. A quarter of the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party opposed the invasion. A section of civil servants were uneasy about the war. The widespread opposition to the war within and outside parliament raised constitutional questions about the need for parliament’s consent to declare war. Under the UK’s unwritten constitution, the source of power for declaring war and peace is from Royal Prerogatives and does not require a parliamentary vote.

The question mark over the legality of the war, coupled with widespread opposition, prompted Blair to seek parliament’s approval for the war. Notably, Blair had sought this approval after he had committed himself to the US to participate in the war, which was even before the UN inspectors had completed their weapons inspection in Iraq. Troops had already been stationed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in preparation of the invasion. The British parliament voted 412 to 149 votes in favour of the decision to invade Iraq.  Blair had managed to get the parliamentary vote with the support of the Conservative Party. The invasion would go on to destabilise the entire region, unleash fundamentalist forces throughout the region with the active support and connivance of US and UK allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and mired the US, UK, NATO and the UN in a bloody war that continues to this day without any end in sight. One and half million Iraqis have died in this war.

Blair continues to justify the war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who had waged war against Iran for eleven years, who invaded Kuwait in 1990, oppressed the Kurds, most notably the Halabja massacre where chemical weapons were used in a genocide that killed and maimed thousands of Kurds, and that he discriminated against Shias. After the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraq’s economy and morale was battered by crippling economic sanctions that lasted twelve years and resulted in the death of 500,000 Iraqi children according to the UN’s sanction’s inspectors.

A no-fly zone over Kurdish regions prepared th ground for partition of Iraq. Earlier, the eleven year war with Iran had the support of the UK. The ethics and legality of UK’s arms sales to Saddam before and after 1980s both, have been controversial and investigated by the Scott’s inquiry in 1992, and judicial reviews by public interest groups like Corner House probed corrupt defence contracts with BAE, Britain’s largest arms manufacturer. Eventually no weapons of mass destruction were found but Blair went ahead with US decision to invade Iraq anyway.

 

Summary of Findings

 

The report is a treasure trove of how the UK state apparatus operates. In a nutshell the findings of the Chilcot inquiry may be summarised as follows:

1) Saddam did not pose a threat to Britain’s national security

 2) The UK chose to go to war before all peaceful means was exhausted

3) The intelligence on which the decision to go to war was based was flawed.

4) The legality of the war is questionable.

5) The UK undermined the authority of the UN.

6) The cabinet discussion on the legal advice provided by the attorney general was minimal.

7) The military was ill prepared for the war and did not have adequate equipment and training.

8) The lines of responsibility in the government for the conduct of the war were not clear.

9) There was no post-war plan for Iraq.

10) The government did not pay adequate heed to warnings that the region might be destabilised by the invasion.

11) US-UK relations would not have been disrupted if UK had refrained from joining the war.

12) Blair overestimated his capacity  to influence US policies in Iraq

 13) The UK government did not maintain proper account of civilian casualties in Iraq.

14) The foreign policy objectives of the UK were not achieved.

 15) Ministerial discussions on the war were not entirely free, open and frank.

16) The war was predetermined as Blair had made the decision eight months ahead of the invasion.

 

The Chilcot report stops short of attributing intentional wrongdoing to Blair. The problem, according to the report, was not that Blair misled parliament or exaggerated the intelligence but that he gave excessive certainty and emphasis to patchy and uncertain evidence. The report has a great deal more than the conduct of one man. The report chastises the British political establishment including civil servants, ministers, political figures, intelligence services, military personnel beyond Blair. For over a year the Chilcot inquiry was gridlocked by arguments between US State Department, the UK civil service and Sir John Chilcot over how much of the private communications between the heads of governments can be made public. The gridlock ended with a carefully negotiated settlement which broke the long established convention that conversations between a British prime minister and a foreign leader could never be published.

 

Lessons From The Chilcot Report

 

UK’s invasion of Iraq generated nationwide disillusionment with the democratic process, the nation’s political elite and professionalisation of politics, a disillusionment that has been pervasive ever since. The Brexit vote ten days ago mirrored the disillusionment (D’Souza  2016).  Internationally, the Iraq invasion created widespread cynicism about liberal democracy and international law. The Chilcot report reveals the inner workings of the state apparatus in minute details. In doing so it affirms what people around the world knew intuitively about a new type of democracy that had come into existence at least since the end of the Cold War. Democracy is no longer about government “by the people, for the people and of the people” but about “managing” public opinion.

In the new model of democracy, decisions about life and death of entire nations and millions of people are made behind closed doors by a small group of men in suits guided by the invisible hands of the intelligence apparatus. Revolving doors between the defence establishment, arms, oil, nuclear, intelligence and other industries operate seamlessly. Democratic governance is about selling decisions made by a small coterie of men in suits in international corridors of power to the state and the nation. Recall that the day after Blair lost the elections in 2005, he was appointed as advisor to Morgan Stanley, the US based global financial services corporation and as member of the Quartet, a team of four peace envoys to the Middle East, a position which kept him close to the very sheikdoms that UK relied on to wage war on Iraq.

It has become open practice that the political elite “hang-out” together in various informal clubs of power—the World Economic Forum, the G7, the Quartet, the Coalition of the Willing and similar informal alliances where fates of nations and entire peoples are determined ”informally” in the first instance. The Chilcot report makes clear that the Iraq invasion was predetermined, a done deal between Bush and Blair during their golfing holidays before the UN Security Council’s weapons inspectors completed their job and before the UK parliament debated the issue.

A blitzkrieg was launched thereafter to mobilise the entire political establishment including the public relations firms, lobby groups, human rights NGOs, media, the political class, experts and university academics to give the decisions made in informal clubs a democratic façade. The worry is that it worked. Riding on the Chilcot findings, the very same media which cheered the Iraq invasion and Blair at that time now condemn him. As yet there is very little introspection on their complicity in the invasion and the new practices of “embedded journalism” that it fostered.

If there is one single reason why South Asians and indeed people in the Third World should pay close heed to the Chilcot report, it is to grasp how Western democracy actually works. It might shed light on the extent to which their own politicians are copying the model. The Chilcot report is not about Tony Blair. It is an inquiry into the workings of the British state. On this occasion the Blair government’s blitzkrieg did not work. The dogged resilience of the families of armed forces for thirteen years in their search for truth has given the world an opportunity to glimpse the inner workings of parliamentary democracy and the depths to which democracy has fallen in the home of the “Mother of all Parliaments.” By revealing the workings of the invisible hand of intelligence services that guides men in suits, the Chilcot report has put democracy itself on the agenda of national politics, not only in Britain but around the world.

The Chilcot report coming after Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and of course Palestine ought to caution people in the Third that they can no longer take the UN’s pontifications or the pious statements of politicians about democracy and freedom at face value. NGOs can no longer afford to parrot lines put out by a maze of public relations, funding and knowledge producing organisations about human rights. Social movements in the Third World can no longer, for the sake of the survival of their societies if nothing else, turn naively to the world’s most militarised states for help against their own domestic tyrants or expect those states to act from compassion and humanity. The Chilcot report forces all of us to ask difficult questions about the meaning of democracy and freedom in a globalised world where a small group of men can effectively destroy entire nations and peoples as if the world was a computer game.

 

 

References

D’Souza, Radha (2016): “Right, Left and Right: From Great Britain to Little England, via Brexit,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 51, No 4, http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/25/web-exclusives/right-left-and-right-brexit-and-rise-little-england.html.

 

 

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