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John Howard’s Dishonour

By Prof Stuart Rees:

On the first Monday of the new year, on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, former Prime Minister John Howard was pictured below a heading which said that he had been ‘honoured for Queen and Country.’ Such a tribute – he had been made a member of the British Crown’s Order of Merit – belies the man’s record.

Even if we were to ignore Howard’s leadership over issues such as his hostility towards the Australian prisoners in Guantanamo, Australia’s inclusion in the war in Iraq, plus the Howard government’s cruel treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, I wonder what the Queen had in mind when she rewarded this man.

Her Majesty is no doubt aware that Howard is a devout monarchist and perhaps she still feels sorry for him that he lost his seat in Bennelong and was ignominiously kicked out of parliament. But even the clear terms of reference of the award make you wonder how on earth John Howard crept in. The terms refer to a subject of the Crown who has rendered exceptionally meritorious service ‘towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science or such other exceptional service as We are fit to recognize.’

The reference to ‘literature’ might be about John Howard’s autobiography but even those pages of self justification are part of the hypocrisy which sees one set of criteria for judging the rich and powerful versus indifference and even cruelty towards people whom establishment sources would regard a of little significance. John Howard eventually did a deal with Vice President Dick Cheney to produce trumped up charges against Guantanamo prisoner David Hicks so that – for Howard’s election purposes – the young Australian could be convicted and then brought home, albeit straight to a Federal prison. But he had languished in Guantanamo for almost six years and Howard had colluded with Donald Rumsfeld and others in regarding Hicks as one of the worst of the worst even tho’ there’s still no evidence that he harmed let alone killed anyone. Subsequently, under the ‘principle’ of one law for us, another for them – Hicks is not allowed to sell his book, not allowed to profit from his story about Guantanamo.

I mention David Hicks because this introduces discussion of John Howard’s alliance with his US friends in America’s war on terror, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Howard’s foreign policy record was mediocre in several respects. His love for America and the British monarchy was coupled to his disinterest in Australia’s place in South East Asia. To ingratiate himself to his big neighbor Indonesia he was indifferent to the plight of West Papuans and the Australian Government’s eventual rescue mission in East Timor was followed by a characteristically selfish ‘ the powerful takes most’ division of oil resources in relation to that impoverished country.

But it’s Howard’s enthusiasm for and justification of the war in Iraq which makes his Order of Merit sound like an act from a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera which would be funny if it was not so deadly serious.

After nearly nine years America declared an end to the war and withdrew its last troops in December 2011. In that war, John Howard, once described by President George W. Bush as a man of steel, was also regarded as the US’s staunchest ally. Under his leadership and however small Australia’s contribution, this country was seen by the Bush White House as always there, always ready to go the extra mile. This extra included the lies, the financial costs and the monumental loss of life in one of history’s most disastrous foreign policy escapades.

When deliberations about the award to former Prime Minister Howard were being considered, was there no recall that this war was illegal, immoral and initiated under completely false pretences ? There never was any link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, never any weapons of mass destruction left in Iraq. The invasion of that country started, not with any authorization from the UN Security Council but with the much advertised shock and awe bombing of Baghdad.

That bombing of Baghdad, so proudly reported by the mainstream media outlets in countries forming the Coalition of the Willing, -USA, UK and Australia- was the beginning of a carnage in which Australia colluded. Almost 5,000 American soldiers were killed and more than 32, 000 seriously wounded. The Pentagon admits that 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives but by several other accounts, over one million Iraqi civilians died in this war. Over five million Iraqis were displaced from their homes and approximately four million became refugees. The long term financial and human costs of running an illegal war do not include the devastation to a fragile environment.

Under the principles enunciated in the Nuremberg tribunals which followed the end of the Second World War , an illegal war was defined as an atrocity which represented a ‘crime against peace’. Under that principle the architects of the Iraq war such as former President Bush, and former Prime Ministers Blair and Howard should be in the dock of the International Criminal Court charged with crimes again humanity. They’d each be presumed innocent and entitled to a transparent due process of international law, a right never afforded to David Hicks let alone to the thousands of Iraqi civilians, including many women and children murdered on suspicion of being terrorists or for allegedly aiding enemy insurgents.

John Howard did introduce stricter gun control laws in Australia and that initiative could be regarded as rendering ‘extremely meritorious service.’ But in so many other respects and my focus on the Iraq war is only one example, the electors of Bennelong not the Queen’s advisors have made the most sound judgment of the man’s record.

Instead of producing out of date honours for those whose merits have been created by a distorted version of history, it would be a better start to a new year to think just a little – don’t let’s overdo it – about the notion of a common humanity. Alongside the laudatory remarks about brave war leader John Howard we should perhaps recall Ali Ismail Abbas, a 12 year old Iraqi boy who lost both of his arms, his father, his pregnant mother, his brother and thirteen other members of his family in the Iraq war. A poem about Ali says that smart bombs killed his dreams but it wasn’t their fault as they did not know who he was. By contrast the Sydney Morning Herald’s picture reminds us who John Howard is and the invisible Buckingham Palace pundits overlooked his cruel record and have given him an honour he does not deserve.

This article first appeared in Online Opinion on January 4, 2012

Prof Stuart Rees is the Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.