George Austin on the responsibility of Power

IT is early May and the media is full of allegations of horrific torture, brutality and murder in Iraq both in prisons and outside. Of course in the end it may all prove to be the behaviour of a tiny minority of a rogue element in the military, but the damage is done and the whole Iraq exercise begins to collapse into a grimy chaos.

In Britain the story broke with the release of photographs to the Daily Mirror, which some ‘experts’ say are forgeries since they show arms and vehicles claimed by experts not in to have been in use in Iraq.

Be that as it may, it has unleashed a flurry of stories and pictures, claims and counter-claims, and one can only marvel at the courage of the whistle-blowers, given the military culture of regimental pride. Perhaps even more seriously – if it can be more awful than it is – there are accusations by the International Red Cross and Amnesty International of widespread brutality and contraventions of the Geneva Convention. They allege moreover that the military authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have known since February of reports of torture, brutality and sexual cruelty against Iraqi detainees, with supporting photographs.

It certainly makes the Archbishop of Canterbury’s critique of the Government in his Cambridge University sermon all the more apt. The Times described it as ‘a wide-ranging attack on the style and conduct of the Government’, whereby ‘deceptive official statements risked bringing democracy into dispute.’

Unlike some excursions into the political arena a decade or more ago, when a political agenda seemed to carry more weight than Christian principle, Rowan Williams might fairly safely be assumed to be a Labour supporter. But more important he is one who speaks first and foremost as a Christian leader, rather as Bishop George Bell condemned the bombing of the city of Dresden in World War II (which incidentally cost him the see of Canterbury). And it is a leadership that may have cause to become even more high profile in the weeks to come.

The Archbishop argued that ‘weakening of trust in the political system of our nation’ could be restored by an admission of error. Williams was speaking before the allegations of brutality had emerged, dealing more with the broader issue of the rightness of going to war in Iraq, and the flawed intelligence used to justify the actions of the United States and Great Britain.

When it became clear that the two countries were preparing for an invasion of Iraq, I was one of the ‘don’t-knows’. My sympathies were firmly with those million people who marched in London against the war yet I had the nagging feeling that the Government knew something we did not know. Was the failure to name sources, I asked myself, not because the sources were doubtful but because the lives of informants within Iraq might be compromised if fuller details of the intelligence were given?

We can criticize Tony Blair, but even knowing that so many were opposed to the war, he was still prepared to risk his own position as Prime Minister. We are so unused these days to public figures (and I mean in Church as well as in State) risking their careers on a point of principle and this tipped me towards a reluctant support for going to war, not because it was morally right but because it was a lesser of two evils. But there is nothing ‘lesser’ in the particular evil that has now emerged.

The Archbishop also spoke of the ‘continuing damage to our political health’. As the allegations of torture and brutality increase and multiply both in Britain and in the United States, so the public revulsion intensifies. The international perception of the political health and moral integrity of the two nations is reaching what must surely be an all-time low, and this may not be improved, particularly in the Arab world, for generations to come.

Rowan Williams said in his sermon that ‘credible claims on our political loyalty have something to so with a demonstrable attention to truth, even unwelcome truth.’ If the allegations are true as seems increasingly likely, it is certainly an unwelcome truth. Without question, a ‘demonstrable attention to truth’ demands a clear, full and entirely independent investigation into all the allegations.

If left to the military authorities, it will be open to accusations of bias and cover-up, however unjustified that might be. The public will have in its recent memory the allegations involving the deaths of soldiers such as those at Deepcut Barracks, dismissed as ‘suicide’. In one case it was alleged that a young soldier took his own life by shooting himself in the head, even though he is then said to have made sure by shooting himself in the head a second time.

The present allegations in Iraq are no more serious to those who are suffering as a result, but they have wider implications, and given the perception of a frequent lack of a ‘demonstrable attention to truth’ by political leaders, the independence of any investigation will have to be entirely beyond reproach. We must not be left with any impression that only the defence case has been noted and the prosecution in any way ignored or sidelined.

But this works both ways if justice is to be done and to be seen to be done. It was hinted by a news presenter to a spokesperson for one of the international bodies making claims of brutality and murder that some of the charges might properly prove to be unfounded. Some indeed might, and justice also demands that the prosecution should also be prepared to hear and fully and as openly the case for the defence.

Yet the photographic evidence alone makes it clear that some terrible things have happened, and for that reason alone it must rightly call into question the immediate political future of both the President and the Prime Minister, even more so if no action or at least no effective action was taken immediately the allegations surfaced, so that the torture and beatings were able to continue unabated. As a US President once said, ‘The buck stops here.’

If the Iraq situation is indeed spiralling into a chaotic debacle, then the Archbishop’s words have an even more immediate urgency: ‘Government of whatever kind restores lost trust above all by its willingness to attend to what lies beyond the urgency of asserting control; by patient accountability and the freedom to think again, even to admit error or miscalculation.’ And, it might be added, by recognizing that ‘patient accountability’ sometimes demands the ultimate sacrifice of one’s own power and position.

George Austin reads The Times and votes Labour.