Who is the war criminal?

Jan 13, 2024
Australian Prime Minister John Howard (center) poses for a photograph with U.S. Secretary of Defense The Honorable Donald H. Rumsfeld (right) and U.S. Secretary of State The Honorable Colin Powell, inside the Australian Prime Minister's offices at the Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, on July 30, 2001. The Secretaries are in Australia to attend Australia-U.S. Ministerial (AUSMIN) talks and conduct meetings with high-level government military and civilian officials. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Pul Holcomb) (Released) Image: Wikimedia Commons/ TSGT PAUL HOLCOMB, USAF

John Howard took Australia into the devastating war of aggression in Iraq in March 2003 but has still not been held accountable.

Recently released archives show the then prime minister did not even bother to prepare a written cabinet submission setting out the case for the invasion. Yet there was no plausible evidence available to Howard or cabinet to justify the key claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at the time of the March 2003 invasion by the US, the UK and Australia. Once again, secrecy was used to hide multiple lies and fundamental breaches of laws intended to prevent wars of aggression.

The archives show that on March 18 cabinet discussed legal advice from the Attorney-General’s department that “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction . . . would be consistent with Australia’s obligations under international law”. Wrong – meeting our obligations would require the UN Security Council to vote in favour of the use of force which it overwhelmingly voted against.

Howard also gave an oral briefing of discussions he’d had with President George Bush and the British prime minister Tony Blair. He also said he’d received a request from Bush for Australia to participate in the invasion.

An archives summary says that following an oral briefing from the chief of the defence force, ministers agreed to commit the Australian Defence Force to military action. There is nothing in the archives to support Howard’s claims about Iraq’s possession of WMD. A key department head later told me that Howard did not want the public service to prepare a paper on the pros and cons of invading Iraq – all he wanted was for it to be ready to go when he said “go”.

Howard should be officially investigated about whether he should be put on trial for committing a war crime by invading Iraq. This form of aggression has been illegal for over 70 years, but the US had managed to block any cases from being heard in the International Criminal Court for an offence committed before July 2018. However, this does not stop Howard being investigated and charged in Australia. If convicted, he could serve his sentence here. The ICC says it’s only supposed to “complement, not replace, national criminal systems”; it prosecutes cases only when States do not and “are unwilling or unable to do so”.

The US and other countries are now trying to ensure the Russian president Vladimir Putin is charged with the war crime of invading Ukraine. That won’t be easy while he remains president. Perhaps he will be overthrown and handed over to The Hague. In any event, Putin’s behaviour is a clear breach of the UN Charter which states, “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Howard has also allegedly breached this Charter, as well as Article One of the ANZUS treaty which contains the same unambiguous prohibition on aggression. Similar considerations apply to Bush and Blair whom Howard joined in invading Iraq.

There is no information in the archives to support Howard’s claim to Parliament on 4 February 2003 that “The Australian government knows Iraq still has chemical and biological weapons . . . that pose a real and unacceptable threat to the stability and security of our world.” He knew no such thing. He also made a demonstrably false statement in his March 2003 television address at the start of the illegal invasion when he said Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons that “even in minute quantities are capable of causing destruction on a mammoth scale”. Iraq had not produced any new chemical and biological weapons since it was disarmed by UN weapons inspectors in 1991. Australian weapons inspectors, who had tested Iraqi nerve agents in 1991, found they could not cause destruction on a mammoth scale. They are not explosives. One Australian specialist Dr John Gee told me Iraq’s two main agents, sarin and VX, “were of such a poor quality they degrade very rapidly”. Moreover, the invading forces could inoculate troops against the effects of nerve agents and use antibiotics to treat infections from biological weapons such as anthrax.

Howard also claimed that the supply of intelligence was a “priceless component” of the relationship with the US and the UK. Far from priceless, the intelligence on WMD was worse than useless: it provided the rationale for a disastrous invasion. With few exceptions, however, the Australian media peddled nonsense in support of the invasion and dismissed the weapons inspectors as incompetent. If journalists had bothered to look, they would’ve discovered the intelligence relied on was based on blatant forgeries, con-men’s claims and rubbish masquerading as intelligence. The US Secretary of State Colin Powell made a fool of himself by telling the Security Council on 5 February 2003, “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence. He even showed the Security Council satellite photographs of trucks outside a building. The next set of photos shows the trucks are gone, supposedly proving they had disposed of chemical or biological weapons. All that proved was trucks can move – it’s why they have wheels.

However, the US was continuing to engage in intelligence “dirty tricks”. In January 2003, the White House asked the body which intercepts huge volumes of communications, the National Security Agency, to find “dirt” on diplomats voting in the UN security council on whether to invade Iraq. The idea was to blackmail them into voting with the US. The NSA’s UK counterpart GCHQ was asked to do the same. The US- dominated satellite intelligence base at Pine Gap in central Australia reportedly intercepted relevant communications.

Howard’s faith in the validity of the intelligence should’ve been shaken by the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service Richard Dearlove, who told British cabinet members following a trip to Washington, the “intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy [to invade]”. Howard was considered such an intimate member of the inner circle (one of the “Three Amigos) it is hard to imagine he wasn’t aware the intelligence was concocted. Normally, Dearlove’s information would also have been shared with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.

Howard has said he was aware of all the relevant intelligence before invading. In that case, why didn’t he heed the information revealed in the March 2004 report from a Liberal parliamentarian David Jull. This quotes the Australian Defence Intelligence Organisation as saying, “The US was committed to military action . . . independent of the intelligence assessment”. DIO gave other intelligence assessments, which were remarkably accurate, especially ones suggesting Iraq had no functioning WMD of any significance. Meanwhile the Office of National Assessments was adamant Iraq possessed serious quantities of WMD in 2003.

In 2004, Howard reacted by appointing a former head of ONA Philip Flood to conduct another inquiry. His recommendation that ONA’s resources be doubled was accepted, as was his recommendation that DIO be strictly confined to military intelligence, despite doing a superior job on the wider issues.

Howard has never admitted he was wrong to commit Australia to participating in the invasion of Iraq – despite the evidence set out in Sir John Chilcot’s devastating 2016 report on the British involvement on the war. Chilcot found the “benefit of hindsight was not needed to understand the intelligence was flawed”. Howard responded by telling journalists he wouldn’t “retreat” from his decision to invade. Howard’s grotesque mistakes, and stubborn refusal to do the decent thing, reinforce the need for something like a two thirds parliamentary majority to vote in favour going to war.

Far from being an imminent threat to the world in 2003, Iraq had been reduced to a decrepit nation. Its leader Saddam Hussein had turned his hand to writing romance novels. The regular army, the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard were not interested in fighting a massive invasion force against which chemical and biological weapons would be useless. No sane person thought Iraq had nuclear weapons. Provided simple precautions were taken, chemical and biological weapons would not kill a single invading soldier.

Rather than providing a safe haven for terrorists, as some intelligence claimed, Hussein had refused to let himself be replaced by a violent religious dictatorship. It was only after he was removed that Al Qaeda moved into Iraq, along with a vicious new terrorist group, Islamic state. That was the Invaders’ “reward”, along with greatly more influence in Baghdad for American’s dedicated enemy Iran.

Yet Tony Blair still sees no reason to be embarrassed by his pre-invasion statement to parliament that the intelligence evidence was “beyond doubt”. His justification is that he was only stating what he believed to be true. It’s fine, it seems, to be a fool rather than a knave. John Howard takes much the same line.

According to Brown University’s highly regarded cost of war project, approximately 200,000 Iraqi civilians were killed during the conflict and several times this number died from the indirect effects of the war. These include cuts to basic public services, displacement of people from their homes, severe damage to health services and infrastructure, environmental degradation such as contaminated water and shortages of food. Children have been particularly vulnerable.

That’s far more than Putin has killed has in Ukraine since his invasion on 24 February 2022. The latest figures from UN human rights agency and other monitors suggest the total will soon reach 11, 000. That’s bad, but not nearly as bad as Howard helped create in Iraq.

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