Citizens band together to arrest former British prime minister over involvement in Iraq’s invasion a decade ago by Simon Hooper
It was only as David Cronin saw Tony Blair and his entourage striding towards him that he finally plucked up the courage to go through with his plan to attempt to arrest the former British prime minister over his role in the invasion of Iraq and claim a bounty on his head.
“I walked up to him very briskly and managed to put my hand on his arm and say, ‘Mr Blair, this is a citizen’s arrest,'” Cronin told Al Jazeera of the 2010 encounter at the European Parliament in Brussels, where he worked as a journalist.
“I didn’t have time to say anything else before his bodyguards pushed me away, so I just shouted at him, ‘You are guilty of war crimes!’ He looked at me for a split-second before I was bundled off. I can only describe it as a look of puzzlement and contempt.”
Ten years since British forces joined the US-led assault, many in the UK are more critical than ever of the country’s involvement in a conflict documented by the Iraq Body Count database to have killed more than 112,000 civilians.
More than a fifth – 22 percent – of Britons polled by YouGov this month said they believed Blair should be tried as a war criminal for his role in the conflict, which was preceded by massive anti-war demonstrations in London and other cities.
Fifty-three percent said the invasion was wrong, while half said Blair, a key international ally of US President George W Bush, had deliberately misled the British people over the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.
Blair’s schedule these days is a closely guarded secret to avoid ambushes by the protesters who stalk his public appearances armed with eggs, shoes and banners reading: “BLIAR”. Even his testimony at last year’s phone-hacking inquiry was interrupted by an intruder shouting, “This man is a war criminal!”
Cronin, meanwhile, is one of four people to have claimed a reward from an online campaign, Arrest Blair, which offers a share of a bounty pot for each attempted arrest.
Launched in 2010, the campaign has already paid out about $16,600, though it concedes its efforts are largely symbolic. According to its rules, attempts must be non-violent and must be reported by at least one mainstream media outlet.
Cronin, who donated his $4,200 bounty to a Gaza-based charity, said he was moved to act not just by Iraq but also in protest at Blair’s appointment as Middle East envoy for the Quartet of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia.
“It’s a complete joke that a guy who had helped to start two wars in the wider Middle East region is now swanning around posing as a peace envoy,” Cronin said.
Moves to hold Blair accountable are also gaining momentum in Scotland, where some campaigners believe he could be tried under the country’s separate legal system.
Margo MacDonald, an independent member of the Scottish parliament, told Al Jazeera that she planned to table a motion on Wednesday calling for Scottish law to be amended to make illegal “the waging of aggressive war with the intention of regime change”, specifically so that Blair could be brought to trial.
“Theoretically, we believe he could face a court in Scotland,” MacDonald told Al Jazeera. “We are simply adding to the pressure.”
In an article published in last weekend’s Sunday Herald newspaper, Alex Salmond, the leader of the ruling Scottish National Party, appeared to lend weight to MacDonald’s cause, writing: “The illegal invasion and war in Iraq is a disgrace without parallel in modern times, the shame of which will echo down the ages for Blair and all of those who were complicit in sending young men and women to risk their lives on the basis of a gigantic fraud.”
But James Sloan, an expert in international criminal law at Glasgow University, told Al Jazeera that any attempt to prosecute Blair, whether in Scotland, elsewhere in the UK, or at The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), could face near-insurmountable legal obstacles.
While the crime of aggression – the likeliest charge that Blair could face – fell under the ICC’s jurisdiction, Sloan said it was not yet prosecutable because signatories of the court’s founding statute in 1998 had not been able to agree on a definition.
A definition was finally agreed on in 2010, but is not due to come into force at the ICC until 2017. That could pose problems for any effort to apply the charge of aggression to Blair’s actions more than a decade earlier, Sloan said.
“It’s a fundamental principle of criminal law that you cannot retrospectively try someone for something that was not criminal at the time. There could be a pretty good defence that he couldn’t expect to know how the crime would be defined in 2013 or later when he was acting in 2003.”
Blair has maintained that the war in Iraq was justified and that even the subsequent sectarian violence was a price worth paying for ending Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
In the introduction to A Journey, his 2010 autobiography, he wrote: “I have often reflected as to whether I was wrong. I ask you to reflect as to whether I may have been right.”
In response to an email seeking comment, a spokesperson for Blair’s office directed Al Jazeera to remarks made this week in an article in the Sun newspaper and to the BBC, in which he suggested that an eventual uprising against Saddam could have been even bloodier than the current conflict in Syria.
Blair has also brushed off protesters’ efforts to confront him. In footage of an attempt last year by a British activist to arrest him during a lecture in Hong Kong, he can be heard to say: “You’ve made your point and that’s democracy for you,” and then jokes, “Actually, I’m used to it.”
But Chris Nineham, a founder of the UK’s Stop the War coalition, sees a hardening of attitudes against Blair and growing recognition of the weight of war crimes allegations against him in political and media circles.
Even the Sun, a cheerleader for the invasion, felt obliged to run a piece alongside Blair’s in which the father of a British soldier killed in Iraq accused him of being a war criminal and said he should be in prison.
“In a way I suspect it is official politics and mainstream media beginning to catch up with where the public has been for a long time now,” said Nineham, the author of a forthcoming book titled The People v Tony Blair.
“A lot of people want to see justice but in the public imagination, I think Tony Blair has already been effectively vilified and it has humiliated him. That is very important because other politicians in the future who are looking at the possibility of more wars and more invasions will think twice.”
Nineham said Blair could also expect to be harried by protesters for a long time to come.
“You only need to send an email out saying Blair is going to be appearing at such and such an armaments manufacturing conference, and you’ll have hundreds of people phoning in or emailing saying, ‘Yeah, come on then, where is he?'”