Fifteen years ago this month, the invasion of Iraq began despite months of global protests as US President George W Bush and his willing accomplice, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, beat the drums of war. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” not only threw the oil-rich country into two decades of chaos, but also arguably went on to destabilise the rest of the Middle East, spawning failed revolutions and more wars while launching the likes of Daesh, the group which has brought terror to the streets of America, France, Spain and Britain, to name but a few places affected.
In human terms, more than a million Iraqi widows and their orphans emerged from the rubble of their homes while millions more have become refugees or displaced across Syria and Yemen as well as other Middle East countries. Huge movements of people have become commonplace, as bombs sold by the West are dropped on Arab lands. Iran and Russia have also joined in. All of this happened, I believe, because back in 2003 Bush and Blair wanted regime change in Baghdad and lied to us about “weapons of mass destruction”.
Nobody has yet been held to account for the carnage, although the world has become so much smaller for the likes of Bush and Blair who, having been accused of war crimes, now choose to avoid certain countries. Many believe that they will never face justice, but I’m not so sure; the death last week of Argentina’s former General Reynaldo Bignone gives me confidence that justice is never far away.
Bignone once thought that he too was above the law but he came to an ignominious end when septic shock brought about his demise. Instead of passing peacefully in the company of family and friends, though, the 90-year-old’s last view of the world would have been the prison bars in the military hospital where he drew his final breath. Convicted of countless crimes against humanity in various trials, he was Argentina’s last military dictator.
Emboldened by his status at the height of his power, he imprisoned, tortured, killed and forcibly disappeared tens of thousands of people. Bignone was found guilty of numerous crimes, including the kidnapping of babies from political prisoners. His death followed that of another former General, Luciano Menendez, some days earlier; he was another member of Argentina’s brutal military junta who was also convicted of crimes against humanity.
I doubt if Bignone or Menendez personally got their hands dirty but, like Bush, Blair, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad and even Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, they will have issued orders or been privy to information linked to very serious crimes indeed. As the Argentine generals set about destroying evidence of their crimes while trying to justify their actions, they also introduced laws to shield military officers from prosecution, probably a bit like some immunity laws that we have today. Happily for the victims of their awful crimes, the past caught up with them and any immunity they might have had simply disappeared.
In 2005, the Argentinean Supreme Court overturned the amnesty laws and opened the way for prosecutions of those involved in the country’s 1976-1983 “Dirty War”. Justice was served on Bignone in April 2010 when he was found guilty as the head of the Campo de Mayo military base, where illegal detention centres had held thousands. He had also led the military takeover of the Posadas Hospital in Buenos Aires Province, where another illegal detention centre was set up.
Stripped of his military rank in 2014, he never expressed regret for his actions; instead, he had sought to justify them in his 1992 memoirs. Similarly, an unrepentant Bush and Blair have also written their memoirs and still refuse to be held accountable for their illegal invasion of Iraq and the devastating domino effect it had on the region. However, it’s worth remembering that those once in power in Argentina’s dark days of dictatorship also, like Bush and Blair, thought that they were immune, above the law and beyond having to justify their actions to the millions whose lives were changed forever by their fateful decisions.
Another person similarly in denial or unwilling to accept any responsibility for crimes against humanity is Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, she was forced to pull out of a planned public appearance on Tuesday at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia. Her aides cited a sudden illness but it probably had more to do with lawyers filing a private application seeking to prosecute her for war crimes against the Rohingya minorities in her country’s Rakhine State.
Suu Kyi has denied the widespread and credible eyewitness reports of extensive and systematic crimes, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, violence, rape, unlawful detention and destruction of whole villages by Myanmar’s military. The announcement by the Attorney General of Australia, Christian Porter, that she cannot face prosecution while in Australia because she has diplomatic immunity may be appealed against.
Nevertheless, those who believe that Suu Kyi is, in part, responsible for the atrocities which have forced around 700,000 Rohingya to flee for their lives into neighbouring Bangladesh, have made it clear that wherever Universal Jurisdiction or the Rome Statutes apply, she will face similar legal action.
No doubt those accused of war crimes, from politicians and generals in Israel to the likes of Bush and Blair, monitored events in Australia with interest. The climate is definitely changing, especially in America, where a new book hit the shelves recently called “The Trial of Prisoner 043”. The novel exposes the distortion of facts and public statements presented by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and also examines some of the blunders that occurred after it began.
Written by author and Hollywood producer Terry Jastrow, the book opens with Bush being kidnapped from a green on the world famous St Andrew’s golf course under the noses of his secret service bodyguards before being bundled onto a plane and flown to the International Criminal Court. The premise of the book itself — that the ICC would risk an international quagmire to prosecute Bush for war crimes — is itself evidence that a growing number of people around the world believe that the Iraq War was not justified. The fact that it is on sale in mainstream bookstores throughout the US suggests a dramatic shift in public opinion.
As Aung San Suu Kyi can testify after her few brief days in Australia, the world is becoming a smaller place for those who make decisions in office which are so horrifying that they damage innocent lives and countries forever. Try as they might to change the narrative and shred the evidence, they now know that there are just too many good people out there prepared to fight for justice to be served upon those who would place themselves above the laws which they expect the rest of us to obey without question. Messrs Bush and Blair should worry just that little bit more that their time in the dock will come, for justice is never really far away.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.