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Why Dr Tutu is wrong on Mr Blair

07 September 2012

I have no time for those, on both the Right and the Left, who say that church leaders should keep out of politics. But Archbishop Desmond Tutu's inter­vention to suggest that Tony Blair and George Bush should be arraigned at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes suggests that clerics - however distinguished in matters at the inter­stices of morality and politics - would do well to tread a little more carefully when it comes to the business of the law.

Dr Tutu called for the prosecutions as he announced that he is to boycott a conference on leadership, where he was to share a platform with Mr Blair (News, 31 August). His grounds were that "the immorality of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, premised on the lie that Iraq pos­sessed weapons of mass destruction, has destabilised and polarised the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history."

Many people were alarmed and affronted by the invasion of Iraq. I opposed that war, too, and yet I am distinctly uncomfortable about Dr Tutu's high-octane outrage. I worked out why when I heard the human-rights lawyer Sir Geof­frey Bindman QC go on the radio to back the idea.

He was pitted against Mr Blair's former Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer.  Although Sir Geof­frey was strong on querulous indignation, he, too, was wobbly on the law. For a start, although it is now clear that Mr Blair was wrong about his casus belli - the weapons of mass destruction which proved to be non-existent - there is no evi­dence that the then Prime Minister lied, only that he was badly informed or self-deluded, perhaps even wilfully. And on the question of legality, as Lord Falconer made clear, it is per­fectly possible to argue that the pre-war UN resolution 1441 gave sufficient authority to give the invasion legitimate authority.

Most importantly, the war-crimes tribunals in The Hague hear cases on genocide, atrocity, and crimes against humanity. Sir Geoffrey's assertion that, in the future, it will also indict wars of aggression was disingenuous; even if that notion is ratified by the 30 states that are party to the ICC, it will apply only to crimes committed a year after the ratification. A lawyer would, of course, have known that, which is probably why Sir Geoffrey was eventually forced to concede that there would indeed be difficulty in proving a case against Mr Blair.

Dr Tutu would have done far better to stick to moral condemnation - on which grounds he would find plentiful support. Many, however, would question the one-sided calculus by which he blames Mr Blair for those people dying today in Iraq at the hands of sec­tarian suicide-bombers, but refuses to allow the ex-PM credit for the lives saved by the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Instead, he has strayed on to legal ice so thin that it will not bear the weight of his argument. What he has done is to "sex up" the grounds for legal guilt, every bit as much as the infamous pre-war dodgy dossier was sexed up.

Some would go further: Canon Giles Fraser has suggested elsewhere this week that Dr Tutu has violated his Christian principles in his refusal to sit down and enter into dialogue with a man with whom he profoundly disagrees. That, after all, was the principle of both the black/white dialogue that brought South African apartheid to a peaceful negotiated end, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to heal his nation's wounds.

Leadership and morality are indivisible, Dr Tutu has said. But something can be politically shaky and morally dubious without its being a war crime. By muddling what is immoral with what is illegal, the Archbishop has done his position great disservice.

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