Finding a cure for political megalomania

2010-02-06 00:00

RETIREMENT for a world leader used to mean writing a blockbuster autobiography and swanning around the lucrative international speaking circuit. Nowadays — ask Tony Blair and Thabo Mbeki —  it is as likely to mean the threat of imminent arrest and charges before the International Criminal Court.

Previously, upon a state’s leader’s retirement, even lifelong foes would make polite, albeit insincere, noises about statesmanship and patriotism. Nowadays, however, the bile intensifies as even former colleagues queue to bury a dagger in the politician’s now unprotected back.

Following former UK prime minister Blair’s testimony last week before a British inquiry into the legality of the Iraq invasion, there has been renewed clamour from activist groups for his arrest on “crimes against peace”. A website has been set up with instructions on how to carry out a citizen’s arrest, with disillusioned Brits stumping up thousands of pounds towards a bounty for anyone doing so.

In similar vein, as part of the ongoing ritual humiliation by the African National Congress of former president Mbeki, there were calls last year from within the tripartite alliance for him to be charged with genocide. The Young Communists wanted both Mbeki and former Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (fortunately for her, now deceased) prosecuted for denying the HIV/Aids nexus and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

From within the ANC came calls for an inquiry akin to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to prevent “something like this happening again”, new Health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi spoke scathingly of the previous government’s denial and neglect, the trade unionists urged Mbeki to apologise to the nation, and President Jacob Zuma cheerfully excoriated the administration that he once served in.

On the face of it, neither Mbeki nor Blair have much to worry about. Not only is the legal case against them paper thin but also they are safe because of a pragmatic awareness that the arrest and arraignment of the heads of sovereign states would paralyse executive government everywhere in the world.

Nevertheless, the relatively recent establishment of international laws and treaties that in theory make it possible to prosecute, outside of their own countries, national leaders and an echelon of government officials who were previously immune to legal censure, is beginning to bite.

A number of senior Israeli officials, including a cabinet minister, have had to cancel trips to the United Kingdom after pro-Palestinian groups last year tried to have Defence Minister Ehud Barak arrested for alleged war crimes committed during the Israeli offensive in Gaza. The magistrate ruled that Barak could not be arrested because he had diplomatic immunity, but it remains a possibility that someone on a nonofficial visit to the UK would not be so fortunate.

And as activist Peter Tatchell — who tried a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in London for “murder, torture, detention without trial, and the abuse of gay human rights” — knows, it is the embarrassment and inconvenience that are most important. British police manhandled Tatchell’s band and Mugabe went free, but media footage of the “arrest” certainly took much of the fun out of the dictator’s previously regular shopping forays to Harrods.

Similarly, George Monbiot, who founded the Arrest Blair website knows that Blair will never stand in the dock, but he is determined to make the former prime minister’s daily life a nightmare by encouraging repeated attempts at arrest.

Political crusaders have a potent weapon in their arsenal. Constitutional checks and balances and the law do not always suffice to curb despots and megalomaniacs. It would be great if public humiliation managed to do the trick.

• George Monbiot’s site: www.arrestblair.og

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