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Only the UN can save us

There is one last chance to avert total conflagration in Iraq - Blair must lay it on the line to Bush

Polly Toynbee
Friday May 7, 2004
The Guardian


Just when things could not get any worse in Iraq, they do. The Washington Post's disgusting new pictures yesterday presage as many more horror stories as there are civilians randomly killed and people imprisoned or disappeared without explanation. Desperate families outside jails, waving bits of paper with names and begging for news, have had their pleas ignored for a year by the powers that invaded on a promise to bring the rule of law and human rights.

The systematic torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere is so poisonous in its symbolism that not even America's mortal enemies could have devised such a PR coup. Sexual abuse and humiliation of naked Muslim prisoners, urinated on and sodomised, and orders from US intelligence to "soften up" victims in Saddam's old torture chamber almost defies belief.

Except it doesn't. Atrocities are entirely predictable wherever absolute power holds the utterly helpless in secret: that is a universal law of human nature. In peace, that is as true of old people, the mentally ill and children in institutions hidden from view. In war, degraded captives bring out an instinctive disgust, contempt and violence in the captors who degrade them. That is why habeas corpus was the founding principle of British justice, even before Magna Carta, banning the holding of people uncharged, unseen without trial.

"Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people," said President Bush plaintively. Indeed, but it is in the nature of the circumstances that Bush has authorised for holding 10,000 prisoners without trial, many in unknown, secret prisons. "That's not the way we do things in America," he says. Indeed, it is only the way America does things when it goes abroad; the American constitution protects its own citizens. The self-blinding American myth is that a "freedom-loving nation" built on the ideals of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could never do such things.

But it was Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser, Robert Cooper, who elevated double standards into a doctrine, declaring human rights are only for the civilised: "Among ourselves we keep the law but when operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle." That is a self-defeating way to bring civilised values to those whose hearts and minds are the real battleground of "the war on terror". So, although the British foreign terror suspects held without trial have lawyers and are reviewed regularly by a court of law, the need for transparent justice is why they must all be brought to trial or let go. Vera Baird, the MP and QC, finds no reason why the procedures she has used during gangster trials for protecting secret sources and disguising witnesses would not hold good for protecting any risky security sources in these cases.

Invading armies always commit atrocities - often not revealed until years later. Where they can no longer discriminate friend from foe in a sea of alien faces, they are bound to kill indiscriminately. Warning bells rang when, even after the regime fell, UK and US forces still refused to count civilian deaths.

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Few of us who argued against this war imagined things would be this bad. As the president begs Congress for another $25bn in the shadow of this chaos, the rubble of neo-conservative strategy lies all about him. The dream that this expedition would herald a new era of democracy across the Middle East is dead on his lips. Essential contractors have quit as insurance brokers declare Iraq the most dangerous place in the world to business. A Gallup poll in Baghdad, taken just before the torture pictures appeared, showed only 10% of Iraqis had a favourable opinion of the US.

In a majestic lecture last night at the LSE, Professor Fred Halliday, a foremost Arab expert, described the full seriousness of what he called this "crisis of our times". What gives special power to Halliday's analysis is this: with Iraqi connections dating back to before Saddam, and having seen at close quarters the horror of that regime, he did not oppose intervention. WMD was always a dubious excuse, he argues, but Saddam's defiance of UN resolutions was justification, especially his refusal to implement human rights and democracy contained in resolution 688 in 1991.

But now, he says,"the USA has destroyed the goodwill it initially enjoyed" in the days after Saddam fell. Now "the situation is quite literally out of control", with no coherent policy. Paul Bremer in his bunker leaves the initiative to military commanders who have no sense of politics or diplomacy. The US has alienated its allies across the region with its reckless endorsement Sharon and helped to awaken a transnational army of jihadis. Its traditional allies, "the corrupt, weak dictatorships of the region", have been left angry and vulnerable. The "shock and awe" of American global dominance turning into a daily spectacle of ineptitude and failure. Halliday puts what shreds of hope he retains in the UN's Lakhdar Brahimi, as the last chance to avoid total conflagration and the triumph of extremists. But he doubts Washington now is capable of listening to Brahimi. The US now needs the UN, but still refuses to bow sufficiently to the only hope left of rescue.

The neo-conservative dream of total American hegemony without need of allies or international law has been exposed as impossible as well as undesirable. All this causes much smirking satisfaction in the more rabid anti-American camp. But the effect of an Iraq meltdown could have ominous global repercussions. A US retreat into isolationism is no answer. The US is only superpower: the UN and the world have as much need of it as ever for humanitarian interventions.

For example: Human Rights Watch today publishes a damning report on Sudan, where government-backed militias in Darfur are accused of ethnically cleansing an entire district - the Arabs expelling, burning, killing and raping hundreds of thousands of Africans from fertile lands. Watching the TV pictures, the impulse is to cry out: "Do something, someone!" But who? The UN? On Monday Sudan was elected to the UN Commission on Human Rights, put there the African regional group. Cuba and Zimbabwe have also just been elected, and Libya chaired the commission last year. No wonder the US walked out.

But for all its need of reform, the UN is all there is, and Brahimi is Iraq's last best hope. If Tony Blair wants to save what is left of his fearful Iraq error, now is the time for him to put loud pressure on Bush to guarantee the UN a central role after the June 30 handover, with command over the military, and drawing in Turkey and Arab nations under a UN banner. All prisoners must be handed over to UN authority to be dealt with transparently under international law. Otherwise Blair should warn that Britain will follow Spain, Bulgaria and Poland in ordering a withdrawal of troops. Demanding a UN handover is his last chance to do the right thing.

polly.toynbee@guardian.co.uk