openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why Tony Blair is just the right person to get Britain’s top honour

Blair is responsible for countless war crimes and deaths – just the sort of thing the UK honours system was set up to reward

Lily Hamourtziadou Bülent Gökay
7 January 2022, 12.01am
Tony Blair meets troops as he arrives in Basra for a surprise visit to British soldiers in Iraq, January 2004
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

More than 990,000 people have now signed a petition requesting that Tony Blair be kicked out of the Order of the Garter less than a week after his appointment was announced. The charge against him is that Sir Tony, as he now has the right to be called, is not fit to receive a “public honour” because he woefully misled Parliament and the public in stating his case for war in 2003, and his decisions resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Britons and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  

We agree that the case against Blair is overwhelming. Despite that – or rather, because of it – it is fitting that he should be a member of the Order of the Garter.

The Most Noble Order of the Garter is the oldest and most senior order of chivalry for England, Scotland and Wales, founded by King Edward III of England in 1348. Edward is best known for starting one of the most disastrous conflicts of the Middle Ages, the Hundred Years’ War, in his efforts to claim the throne of France. Under his command, English soldiers exacerbated the terrible suffering of the French peasantry, killing everyone and pillaging many villages and towns on their way.  

A practice used by Edward’s troops in these wars was the chevauchée (armed raid into enemy territory), which can be described as total devastation. Rather than besieging a castle or simply conquering the land, soldiers on a chevauchée aimed to create as much destruction, bloodshed and chaos as possible, to both break the morale of French peasants and deny their rulers income and resources. As a result, they would burn crops and buildings, kill civilians and steal anything valuable as quickly as possible, often causing great starvation.  

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The historical texts about the Hundred Years’ War are full of accounts of such large-scale destruction. For instance, historian Peter Hoskins writes that “the lands of the count of Comminges, which extended to Toulouse… were destroyed by fire and sword… Samatan… a large and prosperous town, ‘the best town of the county’ and… ‘as great a town as Norwich’… was burnt… including the Minorite convent, and the army caused such damage it took the town twenty years to begin recovering.”   

Chevauchée in Iraq

Six centuries later, Tony Blair receives a knighthood only a year after the final report from the prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court. The report makes clear that British soldiers had many shocking cases to answer:

There is a reasonable basis to believe that various forms of abuse were committed by members of UK armed forces against Iraqi civilians in detention. In particular, as set out below, there is a reasonable basis to believe that from April 2003 through September 2003 members of UK armed forces in Iraq committed the war crime of wilful killing/murder… against seven persons in their custody. The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that from 20 March 2003 through 28 July 2009 members of UK armed forces committed the war crime of torture and inhuman/cruel treatment… and the war crime of outrages upon personal dignity… against at least 54 persons in their custody. The information available further provides a reasonable basis to believe that members of UK armed forces committed the war crime of rape and/or other forms of sexual violence… at a minimum, against the seven victims, while they were detained at Camp Breadbasket in May 2003.

In 2014, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, together with public interest lawyers, had made allegations to the prosecutor of “acts of torture and other forms of ill-treatment against at least 1,071 Iraqi detainees; 319 unlawful killings (267 in military operations and 52 against persons in UK custody); and rape and/or other forms of sexual violence against 21 male detainees in 24 instances”.

The British were said to have committed crimes including forced exertion, wilfully causing great suffering, forced nakedness and cultural and religious humiliation.

“Such mistreatment was systematic and had a systemic cause, which further suggests that there are hundreds more such victims,” wrote the prosecutor’s office in its final report, published in December 2020. “There are considerable reasons to allege that those who bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes are situated at the highest levels, including all the way up the chain of command of the UK Army, and implicating former Secretaries of State for Defence and Ministers for the Armed Forces Personnel.”

Crimes against Iraqi civilians by the US-UK coalition started on the night of the invasion, 19-20 March 2003. In 2005 Iraq Body Count published the following figures:

  • 24,865 civilians were reported killed in the first two years of the war.
  • Women and children accounted for almost 20% of all civilian deaths.
  • Coalition forces killed 37% of civilian victims.

Since the International Criminal Court published its 2020 report, the Ministry of Defence, rather than hold anyone accountable, has “quietly settled 417 Iraq compensation claims and paid out several million pounds to resolve accusations that British troops subjected Iraqis to cruel and inhumane treatment, arbitrary detention or assault”, according to a Guardian report last November. It seems that the UK’s policies of “denial and ‘deep imperialism’”, in the words of Kevin Hearty of Queen’s University Belfast, who researches justice and victimhood in political conflicts, will not allow any official admission of wrongdoing, responsibility, accountability or pursuit of justice.

The question of honour

In 2008 The Observer revealed the shocking story of Rand Abdel-Qader, 17, murdered because of her relationship with a British soldier in Basra. Her defiant father, Abdel-Qader Ali, remained a free man, despite having stamped on, suffocated and then stabbed his student daughter to death.

Abdel-Qader Ali, a 46-year-old government employee, was arrested at first, but released after just two hours. Astonishingly, he claimed the police had congratulated him on what he had done. "They are men and know what honour is," he said.

Now the British honours system has raised up Tony Blair, a man responsible for many more deaths than Abdel-Qader Ali.

Are Blair and Abdel-Qader Ali men of honour? Men who sacrifice others for their own sense of power and control, calling their crimes ‘honourable’.

Honour means respect or esteem. Honour means judging and checking one’s own actions, having a sense of personal responsibility, feeling under a moral obligation not to inflict suffering on others. Honour is not the crushing of those who cannot defend themselves. Honour is not found in pride and arrogance, but in humility, a sense of fairness and a deep concern with protecting and defending human rights.

Can a ‘man of honour’ be a man who orders the killing of innocents? Or does he kill them honourably?

There is nothing honourable about having the blood of innocents on your hands. Whoever you are: a religious fanatic, a proud nationalist, a dutiful soldier or a suicide bomber. There is neither bravery nor honour in the killing of the weak, of the poor and of the defenceless. It is only easy.

The British Iraq Inquiry, “very conscious of the extent of the suffering in Iraq resulting from the conflict”, published the following key findings in 2016:

  • The Inquiry considers that a Government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians.
  • In the months before the invasion, Mr Blair emphasised the need to minimise the number of civilian casualties arising from an invasion of Iraq. The [Ministry of Defence’s] MOD’s responses offered reassurance based on the tight targeting procedures governing the air campaign.
  • The MOD made only a broad estimate of direct civilian casualties arising from an attack on Iraq, based on previous operations.
  • With hindsight, greater efforts should have been made in the post-conflict period to determine the number of civilian casualties and the broader effects of military operations on civilians. More time was devoted to the question of which department should have responsibility for the issue of civilian casualties than it was to efforts to determine the actual number.

Most tellingly,

  • The Government’s consideration of the issue of Iraqi civilian casualties was driven by its concern to rebut accusations that coalition forces were responsible for the deaths of large numbers of civilians, and to sustain domestic support for operations in Iraq.

The UK’s entire ‘honours’ system is outdated, wrapped in a past imperial mindset and colonial language that is incapable of being reformed and decolonised.

The Blair government’s primary concerns were the pursuits of its interests and, while doing so, its own protection. So, while it may be fitting to bestow an award associated with war, imperialism and its atrocities to Tony Blair, a man responsible for a bloody and ongoing military campaign in the Middle East, it is certainly not honourable.

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