Ask the average person in Britain to name their top ten humanitarian actors and ask them to name their top ten warmongers and my bet would be that Tony Blair would top one list and not figure in the other. So why did the U.S. branch of Save the Children (STC) chose on November 19 to award the former British prime minister its global legacy award at a glitzy gala dinner in New York?
At first, second and third glance it seems an extraordinary decision up there with Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Given Blair’s recent winning streak perhaps he should be seen as the frontrunner for the 2015 award. I felt like checking the date to see if it was April fools day. No one can doubt that STC would have realized this was controversial, as a humanitarian charity focused on child rights, to celebrate the record of a man who co-launched the most disastrous and costly Anglo-American military adventure in history, a man who many think should be put on trial for war crimes.
Even since leaving office, Blair has had a record of engaging in business deals with regimes with dubious human rights recordsChris Doyle
In the anti-sanctions campaign on Iraq, Save the Children in many ways led the way in mounting a global campaign against measures that contributed to the death of 500,000 Iraqi children under five. Blair, both as prime minister and leader of the opposition, never once challenged the sanctions regime that so devastated Iraq. As Blair was beating the war drums in 2003 in tandem with President George Bush, Save the Children were warning (rightly) that there would be “devastating consequences” for the children of Iraq. It was also Blair who refused to call for a ceasefire in 2006 as Israeli forces were pummeling Lebanon including bombing the power plant in Beirut. And in his role as Quartet Envoy to the Palestinians, he has barely uttered a word on Palestinian child rights despite consistent Israeli human rights violations against children and of course most recently another round of Israeli shelling of U.N. schools in Gaza.
Dubious human rights records
Even since leaving office, Blair has had a record of engaging in business deals with regimes with dubious human rights records, only enhancing his legacy. Does Blair’s multi-million pound contract to advise the president of Kazakhstan include coaching on child rights? What about his close business ties with China where he visits apparently six or seven times a year? None of this has stopped him picking up various gongs including GQ magazine crowning him “Philanthropist of the year” only in September. The men’s magazine is one thing, but one of the world’s best known and loved charities is entirely another.
It certainly has sent shockwaves throughout the organization. Almost 200 SCF staff signed an internal letter condemning the award as “morally reprehensible” and demanding that the award be withdrawn.
Did the heads of Save the Children have a severe case of amnesia? Did the mission statement of the “world’s leading independent child rights organization” get deleted by mistake? Is Blair’s global legacy really that impressive?
Well if you ignore his role in the crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon amongst others, as well as contacts with hosts of child-unfriendly regimes, can a case be made for Blair’s record? Those who think he may hand back the award should read his self-justification for the award. It is not in Blair’s nature and he will enjoy the chance to burnish his “humanitarian” credentials and improve brand Blair. His statement notes that the award was in recognition of his role in “leading G8 nations at Gleneagles in 2005 to pledge to double aid to Africa and provide 100% debt relief to eligible countries, as well as his ongoing work in partnership with African governments through his Foundation, the Africa Governance Initiative.”
Missing the point?
But is this not missing the point? Maybe Blair’s work on debt relief, on increasing international aid and on Africa has been very positive but should an agency whose vision is of “a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation” only take note of half the record and ignore Blair’s more bloody history? Does this not contrast, for example, with the more principled stand that Oxfam took in parting ways with its global ambassador Scarlett Johansson over her endorsement of Sodastream over its illegal settlement factory? Did some in STC U.S. believe that by picking a controversial figure like Blair, the charity would benefit from the heightened media exposure?
Such major international aid agencies have a responsibility to uphold standards. Surely, their devoted staff who frequently work at great risk, their generous supporters and above all their beneficiaries, children, deserve better. The bosses of STC owe them all an explanation. One STC staff member fumed to me that “it was like the heart and soul had just been ripped out of the organization.”
But Blair is also a senior diplomatic envoy who works on behalf of the U.N., Russia, the U.S. and the EU. Should he be picking up awards from agencies he may even have to work with in Palestine? Amazingly, neither he nor his “bosses” had any reservations about him receiving a $1m award from an Israeli foundation in 2009.
Above all, as the Middle East is still reeling from the consequences of Blair’s disastrous intervention in Iraq and failure in Palestine, what does it say to those in the region who have suffered so much? How can STC stand up for the rights of Palestinian and Iraqi children whilst lauding a man with a record of crushing those very same rights?
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
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