It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's decision to refuse to share a platform with Tony Blair at a leadership summit in South Africa recently, citing the ex-British prime minister's role as one of the author's of the war in Iraq. As if this isn't enough, the retired archbishop called for both Tony Blair and George W Bush to be held accountable for the devastation and deaths that resulted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
"The then leaders of the United States (George Bush) and Great Britain (Tony Blair) fabricated the grounds to behave like playground bullies and drive us further apart. They have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand - with the spectre of Syria and Iran before us."
The story made international headlines only because Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1984 for his courageous leadership during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, is not a voice that can be easily dismissed by either Blair or the mainstream press.
One of the most sickening aspects of the past few years has been the way that Iraq has been almost forgotten, the war and ensuing chaos treated as a footnote, with those involved in the key decisions responsible for Britain's participation well on the way to being rehabilitated back into public life. We see them popping up with regularity in the media, members of Blair's former inner circle during the build-up to a war that was unleashed based on 'intelligence' which many, including the archbishop, believe was fabricated from the outset. It bespeaks something insidious about the West that such a cataclysmic human tragedy can be visited on a nation and those who were responsible can go on to enjoy the kind of status and respect commensurate with blood free hands.
Since leaving Downing Street Tony Blair, as everyone knows by now, has enjoyed an exceptionally lucrative career as a public speaker, political advisor and consultant to governments and various multinational corporations. He has also exerted himself in not only denying that Iraq was a 'mistake', but that life has improved for the vast majority of Iraqis as a result. As his response to the archbishop's public condemnation of him shows, the former prime minister continues to insult the collective intelligence of the millions in Britain and around the world who came out in an unprecedented international antiwar movement to oppose the war in the months leading up to it.
Mr Blair claims that Iraq is a more prosperous country and that its progress can also be measured by the fact that the infant mortality rate is now much lower than it had been under Saddam.
Completely and conveniently abstracted from both of these fatuous claims is the brutal truth that as a direct consequence of 13 years of UN sanctions, of which Tony Blair was a firm supporter, 1.5 million Iraqis died due to lack of clean water, basic medicines, and medical equipment. As to its increased prosperity, are we really expected to take this claim seriously? The application of even the most basic logic points to the incontrovertible truth that emerging from what by any measure was a medieval and barbaric attempt to inflict a slow death on Iraq's economy and disintegration of its infrastructure, both of which at one time were the strongest and most developed of any Arab state, an increase in the nation's prosperity is difficult to argue with. Both these claims therefore represent a grotesque distortion of the truth. Indeed they belong to the school of historical revisionism.
But back to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and by any measure this is a man who has been a veritable force of nature throughout a life spent championing the poor and oppressed around the world. The astounding thing is at the age of 80, and long since retired, his willingness to speak truth to power has never diminished.
Born in Western Transvaal in 1931, Tutu came to the church after a brief stint following in his father's footsteps as a teacher. Ordained into the Anglican priesthood in 1960, from the outset Tutu refused to remain silent or quiescent amid the injustices and indignity endured by black South Africans and used his lectures to highlight them.
After the Soweto Riots of 1976, in response to the then apartheid government's attempt to make Afrikaans the compulsory language in black schools, Tutu gave his full support to an economic boycott of South Africa, opposing those who believed that such a boycott would harm poor black South Africans most. He organised a number of mass non-violent demonstrations against apartheid and he was jailed for a brief period in 1980. During this period, he rose up through the ranks of the church and played a key role in unifying most of the churches in South Africa in opposition to apartheid in his role as Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches. Throughout his anti-apartheid years, Tutu was a strong advocate of reconciliation post-apartheid and was the driving force behind the Truth and Reconciliation Committees that followed its eventual defeat in 1994.
Since then he has spoken out against Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, which he likened to what black South Africans suffered under apartheid, and is a supporter of the ongoing international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, despite being heavily criticised by many Jewish and pro-Israel organisations both in Israel and the United States.
In 2007, he wrote to the Chinese government protesting the detention of the pro-democracy activist and political dissident Yang Jianli and was critical of China's failure to act over Darfur. He urged a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in solidarity with Tibet. In 2005 he called for the closure of the US base and detention facility at Guantanamo and heavily criticised the policy of detention without trial being followed by the US government.
These are just a few of the many causes and issues in which this remarkable figure has intervened and/or raised his voice over the past decade. And while people may not agree with his position on some, there is no doubt the world would be a much poorer place without the moral conscience which Archbishop Desmond Tutu has provided throughout his long life.
The Tony Blairs and George Bushes of this world are mere mice by comparison.Suggest a correction