To intervene or not to intervene when governments are committing atrocities against their own people. That is always a huge moral dilemma. And it’s not as easy as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu seems to think.
This is essentially former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s reply to Tutu, who refused to appear with him at the Discovery Invest leadership conference or participate with him in a BBC interview yesterday, because of his support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Tutu said it would be “inappropriate and untenable” to share a platform with Blair, because his backing of the invasion, “on the basis of unproven allegations of the existence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, was morally indefensible”.
Blair replied, in an interview in Johannesburg this week, removing Saddam Hussein from power was justified because of his atrocities, including killing thousands of Kurds in Halabja with poison gas, using chemical weapons against Iran, persecuting the Marsh Arabs and denying most Muslims (the Shia) the right to worship the way they want to.
He acknowledged that in 2003 he and US President George Bush had not used that argument to justify the invasion of Iran, but had done so on the grounds of Saddam’s suspected possession of nuclear weapons – which were never found.
But since Tutu was raising a moral argument, he was replying with one, he said.
Blair has acknowledged that – before the invasion – he raised with the US Britain’s misgivings about attacking Iraq without an explicit UN resolution authorising it.
Why then had he gone ahead without that resolution?
“For the same reason we did in Kosovo,” he said this week. “Because we felt it was the right and necessary thing to do. But it’s also important to understand that for the vast majority of time since the middle of 2003, US and British troops were there with full UN authority.
“It’s important to realise that, because most of the trouble has happened as a result of the sectarian violence which was then visited on the country. But that was after the time when the UN authority was fully there.
“So these are very difficult decisions. But I don’t think you could say that leaving Saddam Hussein in place was a morally superior choice. So I think it’s sensible for us to just agree to disagree on it.
“These are very difficult questions to pose in moral terms. What shall we do about Syria now? Let’s be clear, probably almost 30 000 people have now died in Syria.
“Is the moral choice to intervene or not to intervene? These are difficult questions. We didn’t intervene in Bosnia in the early 1990s and a quarter of a million people died.
“We didn’t intervene in Rwanda, where there was genocide. So intervention or non-intervention on a moral basis is very difficult.
“It’s true we believed, and I still believe, Saddam was a threat. And the reason I reference the two incidents of Halabja and the Iran-Iraq war is that was where chemical weapons were actually used.
“I think I’m right in saying those were the only situations since World War II where such weapons were used.
“So we have to be careful about rewriting history so we forget the past.”
Blair said most of the 130 000 people who had died in Iraq since the 2003 war were killed in “sectarian violence instigated by people from outside the country”.
“My view – very strongly– is we shouldn’t force these countries to choose between tyranny or terrorism. They should have the choice of liberty, if they want to.”
Blair also hit back at SA Muslim groups who have threatened to effect a citizen’s arrest of him in SA, proposing that instead they “protest against the people doing the killing”.
“The vast majority of people dying from terrorist activity is Muslim-on-Muslim violence, which is an outrage against the proper faith of Islam.”
As prime minister, Blair focused on mobilising greater Western help for Africa, through his Africa Commission and Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005, where leaders agreed to double aid to Africa by 2010 and relieve it of much of its debt.
Is he dismayed that seven years later many of these promises have not been kept?
He said it was true not all aid commitments had been met, though the UK had met its promises. And most of the debt relief had materialised from all countries.
“You never go as far and as fast as you like. But on the whole… Africa is… a far, far better place than it was. I’m actually optimistic about Africa.
Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world in the past few years have been African. We can look forward to a doubling of the middle class in Africa.
“There are countries getting on their feet. So I think the crucial thing now, however, is governance. Aid matters and we should keep it going. The fact is, though, without really good governments focused on things, like infrastructure, electricity, creating a proper environment for business, the right types of education and health care, without that crucial governance part… that is what holds countries back.”
Blair continued to defend leaders like late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. He identified them a decade ago as a “new breed of leaders” who were lifting Africa’s fortunes.
All three leaders became more autocratic since then.
“Countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda will have to embark on a stage of political change and evolution and, so far as President Kagame is concerned, he understands that perfectly well.
“On the other hand, the reason we’ve applauded them is if you look at where Rwanda was, there was genocide, and where it is today, the progress has been remarkable, in terms of reducing deaths from malaria, improving the economy, investment in the infrastructure of the country.
“It’s a small, landlocked country. It’s done amazing things.
“And in Ethiopia, I think, for all the necessary and correct scrutiny of what’s happened politically, and perfectly legitimate concerns about democracy, nonetheless you can’t dismiss the record of Meles as a leader.
“The fact is Ethiopia was the poster child back in the 1980s for abject poverty and intractable problems. It’s come a long way since then. You just need a balanced perspective on this.
“The single most important thing to realise about Africa today is the quality of governance – of course, democracy, transparency, accountability – are really important issues.
“But so is effective government. If you take South Africa today, the pressures are all to do with how the government actually delivers programmes of change – in education, in jobs, in infrastructure and so on.
“That requires not just democratic practices. It also requires good, sound, effective policy making and governing.”
Blair added, in this regard, people abroad were now worried about where SA was going.
He felt it had become too preoccupied with ideological concerns and was not paying enough attention to effective governance.
Since 2007, Blair has been the special envoy for the Middle East “Quartet” – comprising the UN, EU, the US and Russia – which has been trying for a decade to achieve a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
Blair agreed negotiations were stuck. “And I think it would be tough to revitalise that until after the American presidential election.”
But he saidthe situation would be worse if the Palestinian Authority had not revived the West Bank economy, and if Gaza had not been opened up – substantially, though not enough.
Blair insisted the international community was taking a very strong position against Israel continuing to build settlements on the West Bank.
But the only way to resolve that problem was to get back into real negotiations, which would agree on land swops – on what land Israel would keep on the West Bank and what land it would give in exchange to the Palestinians.
Blair said the revolution sweeping the Middle East and north Africa – and affecting even northern Sub-Saharan Africa – posed huge challenges for everyone, and it was vital for Western policy to stay highly engaged.
“And that means encouraging the economy there, encouraging a proper understanding of democracy, so minorities are properly protected.
“It means pushing back against the power of Iran.
“And it means support for the Middle East peace process. We need to renew and revitalise that.”
The problem was the “deeply debilitating and dangerous” eurozone crisis was distracting the West when it most needed to focus on the Arab revolution.
On Israel’s threat to attack Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons facilities, Blair said he hoped the issue could be resolved diplomatically and with sanctions.
But he warned: “If Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons capability, at some point the world will act. And American President [Barack] Obama has laid down some very clear red lines on that. I think the Iranians would make a huge mistake if they thought he was bluffing.”
The consequences of an Israeli or US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities “would be completely unpredictable, I’m afraid. But on the other hand, the consequences of Iran with a nuclear weapon would also be very predictable”.
“Which would be to hugely increase the power of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to alter the balance of power in the Middle East, and you would almost certainly get other powers in the region wanting to acquire their own nuclear capability.”
Which would be worse? “I’m absolutely with America and the European leaders. I think an Iran nuclear capability is very dangerous and we should mean what we say on it.”
Blair was tipped to become the European Council’s first full-time, long-term president in 2009, but eventually was not chosen, evidently because many European governments felt he would draw too much power to Brussels.
But he said he still wanted to play some role in the European project – “to participate in the debate, both in the UK and in Europe, but not as a member of parliament”.
“In Europe, over these next three years, there’s going to be a massive reconstruction of the European project.
“Whatever happens – whether the single currency stays or doesn’t stay – there’s going to be massive reconstruction.
“Anyone who cares about the future of [their] country and Europe wants to participate in that.”