Inglourious Basterds


John Howard, the former politician, author, public speaker and Iraq war criminal, is still being lionised by Australian media, particularly at the ABC. Lawyer and human rights activist Kellie Tranter takes aim.

In 2013, Professor Stuart Rees, Founder and Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation, wrote in an article John Howard’s Iraq War Fantasy that, “The arrogance of western warmongers enables them to behave as though they are not accountable to international law. Not only that, they can also make small fortunes from writing books and giving lectures about their conduct.”

After Howard’s inglorious personal demise in the 2007 federal election – only the second prime minister in history to lose his seat while in The Lodge – he followed that path exactly, joining the lucrative speaker’s circuit, writing his autobiography and receiving an honorary doctorate from Sydney University.

In 2014, John Howard published his book ‘The Menzies Era’ which was developed into the series Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia and which aired on the public broadcaster last year.

In response to a Freedom of Information request attempting to ascertain who was responsible for nominating John Howard as the presenter, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) responded as follows:

“The Director of Television has confirmed that the idea for series Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia was developed internally. He advised that ABC TV had wanted to do a documentary on Menzies for some time, and when John Howard’s book was published, this was identified as useful source material for that documentary. A creative decision was made that John Howard would be a good choice to present the documentary, as the most authentic voice in the circumstances. ABC TV approached production company Smith and Nasht and commissioned them to make the series…”

In a further email received in December last year the ABC confirmed that “the Director of Television made this conceptual decision in collaboration with the Head of Production.”

Since the Iraq war it is no doubt difficult for many to accept that John Howard is considered an ‘authentic voice’ on any issue. But the reality is that John Howard won’t be held to account by international law, and will continue to be treated as a statesman instead of a war criminal because his crime of aggression occurred at an historical moment where no crime existed.

An American chopper patrols over the skies of Baghdad. (DVIDSHUB, Flickr)
An American chopper patrols over the skies of Baghdad. (DVIDSHUB, Flickr)

The Chilcot report revealed that one World Health Organisation study, based on a survey of 9,345 households, concluded that there had been 151,000 Iraqi deaths between March 2003 and June 2006. Another survey, by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which has been the subject of some criticism, concluded that there had been 601,027 violent deaths of Iraqis over the same period.

The truth is that we’ll never know how many innocent men, women and children were killed in Iraq. Yet evil will not meet retribution in real life and on the whole the perpetrators’ crimes have for them thus “paid”.

John Howard may receive the occasional reminder of his immorality when a shoe is thrown, activists protest or when whistleblowers – who operate in a nitty-gritty reality of personal risk – come forward to offer an alternative account to the official word. But realistically Howard will continue to receive standing ovations by many within the academy and the political and media classes who continue to conform with the conservative agenda.

Last year human rights barrister, Geoffrey Robertson QC, pointed out that if we are to prevent world leaders from waging wars of aggression without just cause, we must first make sure there’s a law against it; that there was not a defined crime in 2003, and it was not within the power of the ICC to do anything about it.

He noted that:

“As the crime is now defined, they would have a case to answer. It means the planning or preparation or initiation, ‘by a person in a position effectively to exercise control or to direct political or military action of a state’ of an act of aggression, ‘which, by its character, gravity and scale, constitutes a manifest violation of the charter of the UN’. In the debate over Chilcot, Messrs Corbyn and Salmond should insist that the UK ratify the ICC aggression amendment. It will come into force next year, after a 30th ratification (by Palestine) last week. Britain’s refusal to do so has been put down to US pressure, which must be resisted. Moreover, Labour and the Lib Dems should insist that parliament legislate so as to make aggression a crime under our domestic law as well.”

Can one assume from the fact that we are yet to ratify the ICC aggression amendment that Australia has also come under US pressure, or that some of our former leaders fear how they will be assessed under the new law?

Although there have been reports that we have either ‘expressed interest’ and/or are ‘currently working on ratification of the amendments on the crime of aggression’, what is Australia’s position? What is the Opposition’s position? When do we intend to ratify this amendment? Or are we going to take the US stance of refusing to cede to any international authority the right to determine the criminality of our leaders, and leave any crimes they perpetrate unacknowledged and unpunished?

One wonders whether our public broadcaster would have been so keen to pitch John Howard for the role of presenter if the ICC aggression amendment existed back in 2003, and he had been tried.

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist.