If Vladimir Putin is to be tried as a war criminal, why not Gordon Brown?
by Ian Sinclair
5 April 2022
Last month former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was among 140 academics, lawyers and politicians who signed a petition calling for a Nuremberg-style trial for Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion of Ukraine.
Appearing on the BBC Today Programme, Brown said “We believe that Putin should not be able to act with impunity, that a warning should be sent out that he will face the full force of international law, that his colleagues who are complicit in this will do so as well”.
He continued: “The foundational crime… is the crime of aggression, the initial crime of invading the country… the rule of law has been replaced by threats and by the use of force, and that has to be punished.”
Asked if he considered the Russian leader to be a war criminal, he replied: “That’s what President Biden said, and that’s my view.”
There is, of course, another relatively recent and glaring example of the “foundational” crime of aggression – the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq led by the US and UK. With the US and UK failing to gain United Nations support for military action, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan explained in 2004 the war “was not in conformity with the UN charter” and therefore “from our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has undoubtedly been bloody with, it seems, indiscriminate bombing and shelling of urban areas leading to thousands of civilian deaths and millions of refugees. The reporting at the weekend of Russia’s alleged massacre of civilians near Kyiv is particularly horrifying. However, it is also worth remembering the US-UK attack on Iraq and the chaos it caused 500,000 deaths, according to a 2013 PLOS Medicine journal study, and over 4.2 million people displaced by 2007, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Brown has direct responsibility for the destruction of Iraq. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1997 to 2007 – the second most powerful person in the government after Prime Minister Tony Blair – he oversaw the financing of the war. As a senior cabinet minister he also had collective responsibility for the decision to invade. Andrew Rawnsley explained Brown’s role in the immediate run-up to the war in his 2010 book End Of The Party: The Rise And Fall Of New Labour: on March 17 2003 “Brown gave an unequivocal statement of public support and threw himself into the effort to win over Labour MPs.”
“In the final days [before the invasion] Gordon was absolutely core,” senior Blair aide Sally Morgan told Rawnsley.
Incredibly, Brown was still supporting the war in 2010, telling the Chilcot Inquiry the decision to attack Iraq was “the right decision for the right reasons” and that “everything that Mr Blair did during this period, he did properly”. According to the Guardian’s report of his appearance at the inquiry “Brown accepted he had been fully involved in the run-up to the invasion”.
Brown was also Chancellor for the illegal invasion of Afghanistan, and then Prime Minister from 2007-10. According to Brown University’s Costs of War research project, as of 2021 an estimated 176,000 people had died in the near 20-year Afghan war, including around 46,000 civilians. After his staff interviewed over 600 people with first-hand experience of the Afghan war, the head of the US government’s Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told the Washington Post “the American people have constantly been lied to” for 20 years. As the US’s closest ally in Afghanistan, how many lies did the Blair and Brown governments tell the British people about the war?
Surely, then, if anyone should be facing a Nuremberg-style war crimes trial for the crime of aggression it is Brown himself – along with Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, and senior figures in the US government at the time.
Brown’s responsibility for the slaughter in Iraq is unarguable, though unmentionable in the mainstream media and by the blue tick commentariat.
Even much of the left seem unable to compute Brown’s culpability for mass death in Iraq. In a review of Brown’s new book Seven Ways To Change The World, last year William Davis, Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, argued “Brown’s forte as a politician was his combination of clear moral purpose with a mastery of technical minutiae, but which sometimes resulted in an air of bookish detachment.” In June 2021 Professor Anthony Costello, a member of the leftish Independent SAGE group, tweeted that Brown was “a true international statesman”, while in 2012 Save the Children CEO – and former Special Adviser to Brown – Justin Forsyth tweeted “Well done to Gordon Brown for being appointed UN SG special envoy for education. His leadership over many years is impressive.”
Brown’s ‘leadership’ certainly helped to change Iraq’s education system. A 2004 UNICEF survey found “over 700 primary schools had been damaged by bombing… with more than 200 burned and over 3,000 looted” since the US-UK invasion in March 2003. “Iraq used to have one of the finest school systems in the Middle East,” commented UNICEF Iraq Representative Roger Wright. “The current system is effectively denying children a decent education.” Brown University’s Costs of War project found similar impacts on Iraq’s higher education sector: “The Iraq war resulted in the decimation of Iraqi universities, through looting, violence against academics, and the removal of Iraq’s intellectual leadership.”
There are rare exceptions to this power-friendly historical amnesia. Over the years media watchdog Media Lens, the editor of Interventions Watch blog, Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard and blogger John Hilley have all highlighted Brown’s responsibility for the Iraq War. And in 2009 Peter Brierley, whose son Shaun was killed in Iraq in 2003, said both Blair and Brown should be tried as war criminals. And while 37 per cent of respondents to a 2010 ComRes poll answered that Blair should be tried as a war criminal, in the same poll 60 per cent of respondents said that Brown should share responsibility for the conflict with Blair.
Arguably the anti-war movement has all too often focussed their ire, rather successfully I would argue, on the individual figure of Blair.
But this isn’t how history works. Blair could only take the UK to war because he had the support – or at least acquiescence – of key centres of power, including Brown, the cabinet, the vast majority of Labour Party MPs, nearly all Conservative Party MPs, the military, the civil service and significant sections of the press.
Indeed, Brown’s importance to events is highlighted by the argument that if Brown, representing a huge power base in the Labour Party, had publicly opposed the war in 2002-3 it would have likely stopped British military involvement – something then International Development Secretary Clare Short said in the recent BBC documentary Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution.
Of course, it is very unlikely Brown (and Blair) will ever appear in front of a Nuremberg-style trial for what they did to Iraq. But in a sane and just world Brown’s crimes would have ended his career as a public figure long ago. Instead his ‘expertise’ is regularly sought by the mainstream media, the Guardian provides him with a platform to opine about Afghanistan (stop laughing at the back), he is regularly invited to give prestigious public lectures, and he has been appointed to a number of high profile positions.
Excepting Blair and his many “rare interventions” in public life, a more perfect illustration of the moral bankruptcy of the British political and media elite you could not wish to find.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.