“20 years ago today, Britain invaded Iraq, joining the US in a war that lacked approval from the UN. What followed was death and destruction on a colossal scale.”Jeremy Corbyn MP
Jeremy Corbyn MP writes for Labour Outlook to mark twenty years since the Iraq War
“In Iraq I would have died quickly. Here I feel like I am just dying, but very slowly.”
Akeel used to be a teacher in Baghdad. He wanted to be a headmaster, so he could run education courses for disadvantaged children in Iraq. At 28 years old, he found himself in a refugee camp in Calais. Every time I visit Calais, I am reminded of the diabolical conditions that human beings are forced to endure. Muddied tents provide the only shelter from the freezing cold. Children beg for crumbs of food, as parents mourn the life they could have led. The police carry out evictions on almost a daily basis, destroying people’s tents and confiscating their belongings. And far-right groups stab holes in plastic tanks that contain their only supply of water, now drained onto the floor.
For those who continue their desperate search for safety across the English Channel, Suella Braverman has all-but guaranteed their disappointment and despair. Last week, she announced her plans to criminalise, detain and deport those arriving in the UK via small boats in the Channel. Unable to confirm whether this would comply with international conventions on human rights, Braverman filled the substantive vacuum with lies and rhetoric instead. While overstating the number of refugees in the UK (there were 74,751 asylum applications in this country last year), Braverman understated the horrors that desperate people like Akeel have been forced to flee. In doing so, she understated the complicity this country has in their desperation.
20 years ago today, Britain invaded Iraq, joining the United States in a war that lacked approval from the United Nations. What followed was death and destruction on a colossal scale. More than one million Iraqis were killed, either from direct conflict or in the humanitarian catastrophe that followed. In Fallujah, invaded by the United States army, equipped with chemical weapons, the city continues to report disproportionate rates of birth defects among its children.
Many of us knew that the Iraq war was a terrible decision. A month earlier, 1.5 million people marched in central London to protest the Iraq War. It was the biggest demonstration in UK history, organised by grassroots movements that brought together peace activists, school students, faith groups, peace activists, retired army officers, actors, trade unions and Labour Party members from my constituency and beyond.
In my speech, I warned that the invasion would trigger a spiral of conflict, hate, misery and desperation, which fuelled the wars, terrorism, depression and misery of future generations. “Why are we spending three and a half billion pounds on a war that nobody wants, when there is an AIDS pandemic sweeping Africa?” I said. “When a quarter of the world’s children die in poverty and starvation? And we say there isn’t money sufficient for our own public services!”
Those of us who protested were vilified, patronised and demonised. We were giving succour to authoritarian leaders, they said (some of us were raising the issues of human rights abuses and the sale of British weapons to Iraq, both before and after the 1988 massacre in Halabja). We were sympathising with Saddam Hussein, they said. Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, they said. We were deceived. And we were ignored. Ordinary Iraqi men, women and children – who once laughed and cried just like all of us – paid the price. In a genuine democracy, our voices would have been heard, and millions of people with hopes and dreams of their own would still be alive today.
20 years later, human beings are still living with the cost of war. 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or refugees abroad. And they continue to face demonisation from the same media establishment that lobbied for the cause of their displacement. The UK’s culpability for the economic and political roots of displacement extends beyond Iraq. You could almost make a list of all the military conflicts and wars that this country has been involved in over the past 20 years, and then make a list of all the refugees and where they’ve come from. From bombing Syria to arming the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the UK creates refugees, then criminalises them.
This cycle looks set to continue. Two days after the Tories’ appalling Immigration Bill passed the first stage in the Commons, the Chancellor announced that £11bn will be added to the defence budget over the next five years. There is no glory to war. There is only misery, death and destruction. A world faced with climate disaster and beset by massive inequality does not need more armaments. It needs voices for peace in an increasingly combative world. And it needs voices that stand up to the far right demonising the victims of conflict.
Today, we should remember the humanity of those whose lives were lost in the Iraq War. Let’s remember not just the pain that was caused, but the joy that could have been. Their memory must guide us in our struggle for a more peaceful world.