The past may ambush Blair on his trip to SA

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pn blairtroops AP Former British premier Tony Blair visits British troops in Basra, southern Iraq, after his talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad last year. The Society for Protection of Our Constitution wants him arrested for his role in the invasion of Iraq when he visits SA to address a summit in Joburg. Picture: AP

IF TONY Blair secretly yearns for the quiet life, he hides it well. Since his resignation as prime minister in 2007, he has seemed busier than ever: serving as a Middle East peace envoy and consultiant to corporations, launching a charity and an interfaith foundation, and touring the world as a private speaker. It is in this latter role that he travels to SA this week to speak at the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit tomorrow.

The event, which has the tagline: “Intellectual Capital. Shared”, describes its aims in this way: “In the knowledge economy, those who best understand today’s economic, political and social challenges are the ones who succeed. They are also the ones who can discern the true value of intellectual capital.”

Discovery’s financial heft has helped line up a stellar roster of speakers: Blair appears alongside Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, UK supermarket guru Sir Terry Leahy and the co-chief executive of Goldman Sachs International, Richard Gnodde.

Also on the list is Russian chess grandmaster and opposition politician Garry Kasparov, who initially looked unlikely to attend after being detained by authorities on August 17 after his attendance at a rally in support of imprisoned members of feminist punk band Pussy Riot.

Kasparov was acquitted of all charges by the Khamovniki court last Friday.

Past speakers at the conference include former US vice-president Al Gore, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Absa Group chief executive Maria Ramos, and the founder of Mvelaphanda Holdings, Tokyo Sexwale.

A “standard” ticket to the day-long conference costs R5 760, with a “premium” going for R7 200. Premium ticket holders get chocolates, pens and preferential seating; standard ticket-holders get mints and schoolroom-style seating.

There’s also a VIP option, which ensures one a personal introduction to the speakers.

It would be interesting to know how much Blair will be taking home from this gig.

It has been claimed that he is one of the most expensive public speakers in the world, allegedly commanding fees of up to £6 000 (R79 620) a minute.

In March it was reported that the Stanford University students’ association approached him to give a talk and were quoted $50 000 for security and transport costs alone.

British tabloids have said that Blair continues to cost the British taxpayer nearly £400 000 a year.

He draws the maximum prime ministerial pension of £70 000 (allegedly declined by successor Gordon Brown as being too generous), receives a £115 000 allowance for carrying out his public work, and has a permanent security detail costing at least £250 000 a year.

The reason for that high security bill is that Blair may be a big-name draw, but he also has a chequered reputation, and where he travels, trouble often follows.

Earlier this month it was reported by the Mail & Guardian that the SA Muslim Network executive committee was unhappy about Blair being given a platform by the Discovery summit to lecture on leadership, given his role in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The newspaper reported that the committee was in talks about actions, including marches and sit-ins, that might be taken in protest if Blair were to arrive.

It said it was investigating the feasibility of a warrant of arrest being issued against him.

Now a group called the Society for the Protection of Our Constitution has gone one step further, announcing it has applied urgently to the National Prosecuting Authority for a warrant of arrest to be issued for Blair for the allegedly illegal authorisation of the war in Iraq.

The belief that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal is fairly widely held, and is based on the fact that Blair (and George W Bush) failed to obtain authorisation from the UN Security Council.

Leaked memos show that then-foreign secretary Jack Straw informed Blair the proposed invasion would not meet the criteria required for legality.

A key requirement for a legal war is that it must be declared by a state anticipating or experiencing an armed attack, a scenario found not to be the case in the Iraq war.

Blair also admitted that he disregarded the initial warning of his attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, that the invasion would be illegal.

The BBC has reported that the US Department of Defence tallied 4 487 people killed by US military personnel in Iraq between March 2003 and July 2010.

It reported that, in the same period, 179 British soldiers died and cited sources suggesting between 97 461 and 106 348 Iraqi civilians were killed.

In November, a tribunal called the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission, tried Bush and Blair in absentia for crimes against peace, humanity and genocide.

The hearing was presided over by five judges and included representations on behalf of the defendants made by court-appointed defence counsel.

The unanimous verdict found the pair guilty, but acknowledged the verdict was non-enforceable, although the findings were reported to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

The neutrality of the proceedings was questionable, however, as the tribunal was the initiative of former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, who is staunchly anti-West and has accused the ICC of bias in terms of the figures it chooses to prosecute.

The official UK government inquiry into the Iraq War, the Chilcot Inquiry, is to release a report late next year.

Part of the delay is due to a row over whether cabinet officials are willing to publish sensitive documents, such as notes passed between Blair and Bush, and records of their conversations.

The inquiry held public hearings on matters that included the background to the war.

When Blair came to testify, in January 2010, the British public were electrified about whether he would express regret. It was only at the end of his testimony that he got down to this question.

“I feel, of course, I had to take this decision as prime minister and it was a huge responsibility then, and there is not a single day that passes by that I don’t reflect and think about responsibility, and so I should,” he said. “But I genuinely believe that if we had left Saddam in power, even with what we know now, we would still have had to deal with him, possibly in circumstances where the threat was worse and possibly hard to mobilise any support for dealing with that threat.”

“And no regrets?” the inquiry chairman pushed.

“Responsibility, but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein. I think he was a monster,” Blair replied. “I believe he threatened not just the region but the world.”

Earlier this year, Blair attracted criticism again when he appeared before the Leveson Inquiry into UK media ethics to give evidence about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch (known to be close, because Blair is godfather to Murdoch’s daughter Grace).

It had emerged that Blair had taken time off from his busy premier’s schedule to make three phone calls to Murdoch in the build-up to the Iraq invasion.

It is now widely believed the purpose of these calls was to lobby Murdoch for positive press coverage of the war. Blair denied this at the inquiry, saying: “I would have been wanting to explain what we are doing. I don’t think there’s anything particularly odd about that.”

At his Leveson hearing, Blair was nonetheless confronted by a protester from the Alternative Iraq Inquiry who burst into the room to yell: “This man is a war criminal!”

Over the past few years Blair has been subject to at least four attempts by members of the public to effect a citizen’s arrest of him for war crimes, spurred by the Arrest Blair website, which is advertising Blair’s attendance at the Joburg summit.

The website, established by environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot, collects donations to reward anyone who attempts to carry out a peaceful citizen’s arrest on Blair.

Given that Blair has been dealing with these issues for more than five years, news that certain SA quarters are unhappy with his attendance at the leadership summit is unlikely to come as much surprise to him.

What may surprise him, however, is the confidence with which the Society for the Protection of Our Constitution is approaching its legal bid.

Asked whether the society’s legal bid had any chance of success, Salman Khan, a spokesman for Zehir Omar, a lawyer for the organisation, replied: “Big, big. The persons behind it are heavyweights of South African society. The research has been extensive, the dossier is big and anyone of [juristic] mind can see that it will be successful.”

The society has had an eclectic record of concerns. Some of the issues it has successfully tackled have been prosaic: in June last year it secured a court order against the Victor Khanye Local Municipality in Mpumalanga to compel it to repair potholes.

In March last year, the society launched a legal objection to the Muslim Marriages Bill, calling it anti-Islamic and saying sharia law was not compatible with the constitution.

Neither Discovery nor the NPA responded to comment on the issue of Blair’s arrest warrant.

Given SA’s infamous timidity when it comes to rocking the boat with international figures, however, it seems highly unlikely that the society’s appeal will come to anything.

l This article also appears on www.dailymaverick.co.za. Follow comments on Twitter @dailymaverick.


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