by Ken Coates
When Jack Straw appears at the Inquiry for a second time on Monday, he will be asked about the legality of the war. One aspect of this issue that has been overlooked until now requires careful exploration. This concerns the observance of international conventions during the course of the war, when such observance could make a real difference to events on the ground.
One such case concerns the breaches of the Geneva Conventions which were reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the 26th February 2004. The ICRC representatives presented a twenty-four page dossier on serial breaches of the Conventions by coalition forces in Iraq, to Ambassador Paul Bremer, and the UK representative in Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Widespread abuse of prisoners held by the US and UK over the preceding year involved the breach of a number of the articles of the Geneva Conventions which were itemised in the dossier, which also spelt out the actions that coalition governments would need to take in order to come back into compliance.
It seems clear that the British government took no notice of this report. Sir Jeremy Greenstock told the BBC that his legal adviser made sure that the pages about British actions were sent straight back to the Ministry of Defence, although he claimed to be unaware of the allegations concerning the Americans. But wherever the allegations were sent, they did not penetrate to members of the Government.
Armed forces minister Adam Ingram told the House of Commons on the 4th May 2004:
“To date I have received no such reports, but some may be in the process of being compiled”.
Geoff Hoon, the then secretary of state for defence, said on the 10th May 2004 that the
“ICRC report was not seen by Ministers until very recently. That is because it was an interim report to Ambassador Bremer, passed to the UK in strict confidence”.
But the report was addressed to the UK Government, and it was not an interim statement at all. Straw, then foreign secretary, added his comments the following day:
“With the benefit of hindsight it should have been made available to Ministers but as it happens it was not”.
Tony Blair waited until the 12th May to explain:
“I first saw it on Monday. I did not know of the allegations in the report at the time … The report was not passed to Ministers in February”.
So a complaint by the Red Cross was not considered at ministerial level, although it would require ministerial intervention to redress the wrongs of which it spoke.
There is a serious question involved in this. How are the Geneva Conventions to be enforced, if the responsible bodies charged with the task of enforcement can be ignored by those to whom complaints are addressed? Might it not be a good idea for the Inquiry to find out what all these distinguished persons can offer by way of an excuse for this dereliction?
Ken Coates is Chairman of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation (www.russfound.org)