War criminals must fear punishment. That’s why I went for John Bolton

As long as the greatest crime of the 21st century remains unprosecuted, we all have a duty to keep the truth alive

I realise now that I didn’t have a hope. I had almost reached the stage when two of the biggest gorillas I have ever seen swept me up and carried me out of the tent. It was humiliating, but it could have been worse. The guard on the other side of the stage, half hidden in the curtains, had spent the lecture touching something under his left armpit. Perhaps he had bubos.

I had no intention of arresting John Bolton, the former under-secretary of state at the US state department, when I arrived at the Hay festival. But during a panel discussion about the Iraq war, I remarked that the greatest crime of the 21st century had become so normalised that one of its authors was due to visit the festival to promote his book. I proposed that someone should attempt a citizens’ arrest, in the hope of instilling a fear of punishment among those who plan illegal wars. After the session I realised that I couldn’t call on other people to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself.

I knew that I was more likely to be arrested and charged than Mr Bolton. I had no intention of harming him, or of acting in any way that could be interpreted as aggressive, but had I sought only to steer him gently towards the police I might have faced a range of exotic charges, from false imprisonment to aggravated assault. I was prepared to take this risk. It is not enough to demand that other people act, knowing that they will not. If the police, the courts and the state fail to prosecute what the Nuremberg tribunal described as “the supreme international crime”, I believe we have a duty to seek to advance the process.

The Nuremberg principles, which arose from the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, define as an international crime the “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances”. Bolton appears to have “participated in a common plan” to prepare for the war (also defined by the principles as a crime) by inserting the false claim that Iraq was seeking to procure uranium from Niger into a state department factsheet. He also organised the sacking of José Bustani, the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, accusing him of bad management. Bustani had tried to broker a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Some of the most pungent criticisms of my feeble attempt to bring this man to justice have come from other writers for the Guardian. Michael White took a position of extraordinary generosity towards the instigators of the war. There are “arguments on both sides”, he contended on the Guardian politics blog. Bustani might have received compensation after his sacking by Bolton, “but Bolton says that does not mean much”. In fact, Bustani was not only compensated at his tribunal, he was completely exonerated of Bolton’s accusations and his employers were obliged to pay special damages.

Continued . . .

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