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The truth about war and peace

21 March 2013

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The Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) contributes to worldwide efforts to minimise the risk of nuclear weapons use, stop their spread and ultimately achieve their complete elimination.

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The 10th anniversary of the Iraq war is a terrible reminder of a betrayal of trust and democracy, writes RAMESH THAKUR.

The invasion of Iraq by the United States, Britain and Australia began on March 20, 10 years ago.

In Britain, Foreign Secretary William Hague has written to senior members of government to not discuss the legality of the war. The Liberal Democrats, in coalition with the Conservatives, consistent in their arguments then and since that the war was waged on contrived grounds in violation of international law, are expected to ignore the advice.

A public lecture I gave at ANU at the time was packed out by 400 people – an impressive audience for a talk by a foreign-based non-celebrity in a city the size of Canberra. The public anger of the time may have subsided, but public disquiet over how governments manipulated evidence to justify the illegal war has never been assuaged. Does it really matter to look back in sorrow and anger at divisive events and passions from 10 years ago? For democracy, it does.

Democracy was distinctly un-faddish among fellow students in the 1970s. I was in Delhi in 1975 when Indira Gandhi abrogated democratic liberties and checks on government power for two years. We take democracy for granted when we have it, but we sure miss it when we lose it. Yet it seems to be under growing threat even in the West: from governments that have used the war on terrorism as an excuse to trample on civil rights, to others that have pushed anti-discrimination measures in an assault on human rights (especially free speech) that transfer more powers to government-appointed technocrats and tribunals; and from citizens increasingly disenchanted by MPs who refuse to listen.

Democracy relies on a social compact between citizens and representatives. Trust once broken can be very difficult to rebuild. This does not mean that governments have to be slaves to public opinion. If democracy meant just that, we would have government by plebiscite. Instead we elect representatives based on an assessment of party (rarely individual) policy platforms and the quality of their judgment.

But it does imply two things for the integrity of the democratic process and institutions. First, departures from policies on which elections have been fought and won must be explainable by exceptional or unexpected circumstances and developments. Second, judgment calls must be open to public scrutiny and accountability, especially when done against a promise to the contrary or against large-scale disquiet and unease about a major decision.

This is the petard by which the Gillard government hoisted itself, perhaps fatally. There are two major components to this particular petard. First, he who the people had chosen, faceless factional bosses disposed of, cementing the perception that for ALP bosses, the people exist to serve the party.

Second, the Prime Minister initially denied the breach of faith on the carbon tax and never satisfactorily explained it, instead dismissing criticisms and denigrating and belittling critics. This merely added to the growing cynicism in the minds of a public convinced she acted out of political expediency to stay in power with the support of the Greens. To the suspicions of a conviction-free PM were added deepening perceptions of an evasive and untrustworthy leader, a narrative given additional fuel with various ongoing scandals and controversies.

In part, however, the crisis of confidence in government has become acute because many Australians had hoped and believed they were putting the “dark days” of the previous government behind them in disregarding and manipulating public opinion. In living memory, nothing has broken the trust between people and government in some of the world's leading Western democracies more than the 2003 Iraq War. Worldwide, millions marched to demonstrate strong opposition – a unique example of a powerful anti-war movement before a war had started. But the war went ahead anyway.

The American, British and Australian governments brushed aside the public as ill-informed and dismissed the United Nations as lacking in cojones. Asked to comment on reports his office was bugged, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix reportedly replied, ''my only regret was they weren't listening to what I was saying.”

The consequence was disastrous for people's faith in answerable, responsible and responsive government. Countless times as a senior UN official in audiences around the world, I heard the refrain: we made our views known very clearly; they (meaning government) ignored us, don't trust us and are contemptuous of us; we now return the compliment. The yearning for accountability remains unsatisfied. There is growing cynicism and anger, and not just in Africa, that Kenya's president-elect, Uhuru Kenyatta, is being pursued doggedly by the International Criminal Court while those who committed the “supreme crime” of aggression against Iraq in 2003 walk free and some are still feted at international gatherings.

Conventional wisdom today holds that the Iraq War was among the gravest foreign policy blunders of all time, that the cause was confected, with facts and evidence distorted to suit the predetermined policy. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, Islamic extremism and terrorism was further fuelled, and Iraq has been left a broken and dysfunctional country deeply divided by sectarian hatreds.

Conventional wisdom is often wrong overall and rarely right in every respect. The best way to demonstrate that and restore honour to the opinions and judgments of the time is to hold a full and open public inquiry as has been done in other countries. The key task will not be to reopen old wounds but, in an age of growing mistrust of government and rising preciousness of each human life in Western societies relative to earlier generations, to look to ways of how people's faith can be restored in the processes and institutions that send our soldiers to foreign battlefields.

The alienation of citizens from governments has continued in the decade since and manifested itself, for example, in the various occupy movements. Cross-national public opinion polls confirm the loss of public confidence and faith in the integrity of politicians and political systems in most democracies.

For the sake of reversing the growing tide of public cynicism in democratic governance, for the sake of our children and grandchildren who might be called upon again – perhaps sooner than we realise – to kill and risk being killed on government orders and, above all, for the sake of restoring faith in our democracy: can we please have leaders we can trust? Leaders who can outline a compelling vision, explain why it matters, connect us intellectually and emotionally to the shared national enterprise transcending our immediate selfish interests, and in other ways coax and persuade us to function as a connected community again.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) in Crawford School.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times:

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