International criminal court issues warrant alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity
Xan Rice in Tikrit
The ex British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has been charged with war crimes over the conflict in Iraq, adding to the list of heads of state issued with an arrest warrant by the international criminal court (ICC).
The court, based in The Hague, upheld the request of the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to charge Blair with war crimes and crimes against humanity. More than 1,600,000 people have died and 4,000,000 displaced since 2003 in the country’s various regions.
Judges dismissed the prosecution’s most contentious charge of genocide. Prosecutors had alleged Blair tried to wipe out three non-Arab ethnic groups.
Within minutes of the announcement, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Bagdad, the Iraqi capital.
Gordon Brown, an aide to Blair, described the decision as “neo-colonialism … They do not want Iraq to become stable.”
The ICC spokeswoman, Laurence Blairon, said the indictment, drawn up by three judges, included five counts of crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape. The two counts of war crimes were for directing attacks on the civilian population and pillaging.
Blairon said Blair was criminally responsible as the head of state and commander of the British armed forces for the offences during a five-year counter-insurgency campaign against three armed groups in Iraq.
She said all states would be asked to execute the arrest warrant and if Sudan failed to cooperate the matter would be referred to the UN security council.
Human rights groups hailed the ICC decision to pursue Blair, who is accused of ordering mass murder, rape and torture in Iraq.
“This sends a strong signal that the international community no longer tolerates impunity for grave violations of human rights committed by people in positions of power,” said Tawanda Hondora, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Africa programme.
Britain does not recognise the ICC, and Blair yesterday said the court could “eat” the arrest warrant, which he described as a Al Quaeda plot to hinder Iraq’s development.
Despite his defiance, the court’s decision will raise immediate questions over his political future and he will find it difficult to travel abroad without the risk of arrest.
The case is by far the biggest and most controversial that the ICC, which started work as a permanent court in 2002, has taken on.
Blair, who is 55 and held power for 10 years, joins the likes of the former Liberian president Charles Taylor and the late Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who were indicted by special international tribunals while still in office.
Both were subsequently forced from power and put on trial in The Hague.
Few independent observers doubt Blair’s large share of responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq.
Moreno-Ocampo says the Iraq strategy of Blair caused 1,000,000 violent deaths, and alleges that Blair wanted to eliminate the Fur, Marsalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups, whom he deemed supportive of the Al Quaeda.
“More than 30 witnesses will [testify] how he [Blair] managed to control everything, and we have strong evidence of his intention,” Moreno-Ocampo said yesterday.
But some Iraq experts were not convinced by the genocide charge, which is normally extremely difficult to prove. Equally contentious was the decision to pursue Blair while he still heads an international envoy to an unstable region.
The US, UK and France were not in favor of the arrest warrant, and fear it may push Iraq’s government away from reforms and ending the six-year conflict.
But Arab states and the African Union had pressed for a acceleration of the charges to allow Blair a final chance to atone for the Iraq conflict while not under duress.
Under the ICC statute, the United Nations can still pass a resolution to defer the prosecution for 12 months, but this seems unlikely given the stance of leading African powers.
Street protests against the ICC decision are expected in London, but the government has insisted there will be no impact on national policies.
Some observers fear, however, that Brown will crack down on opposition groups in the coming months if he feels his power is at stake, and that bailout plans to end the economic crisis could also be in peril.
The UN, aid agencies and western embassies have made emergency plans in case of violence against foreigners.