Crusading lawyer drops a bomb or two

GEOFFREY Robertson thinks he might owe his existence to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. At the time his father, an Australian fighter pilot, was due to be part of the Allied invasion of Japan. “He was due to report to naval headquarters on the very day that news of Hirohito’s surrender crackled over the wireless,” Robertson writes in his new book. “Instead of reporting for duty, he telephoned the women’s air force corporal he had taken out in Townsville, and proposed.”
It was the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima that gave the emperor his excuse to surrender; without it, his father might well have been one of hundreds of thousands more soldiers to die in the conflict, Robertson says.
That knowledge has always tempered his view of nuclear weapons, which he did not regard as an unmitigated evil. But in his new book, Mullahs Without Mercy: Human Rights and Nuclear Weapons, the international human rights lawyer takes a tough stand. He says it is time the world called the construction and use of the bomb a human rights atrocity, and set up systems to prevent it falling into the hands of “malevolent regimes which seek to gird their loins for Armageddon”.
To wit, Iran. And Egypt and Syria and Libya. But mostly Iran, which has a history of “appalling criminality”, including massacres of political prisoners. Its nuclear ambitions are by far and away the biggest threat to world security because they will trigger a new arms race, he says.
Robertson argues that it is Iran’s progress towards N-weapons that has spurred Israel into its latest bombing of Hamas; Israel is clearing out Hamas’ missiles because it wants to bomb Iran in early 2013, “once it achieves ‘nuclear capability’, which [Israel] confuses with nuclear culpability”.
Robertson, a QC and probably the world’s best-known human rights lawyer, is 66. He has lived most of his adult life in London but was born in Australia. He speaks in the rich, plummy tones of an English toff. Private Eye has accused him of having had “a vowel transplant”; a philologist once said he spoke like an Etonian in the age of Queen Victoria.
Robertson says he talked like that long before he studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford: “I didn’t speak at all until I was five and then came out with the inflections of ABC announcers.” Not bad for a graduate of Epping Boys High School in Sydney.
Robertson is popularly known in Australia for his ABC TV series Hypotheticals, in which he hosted debates on topical issues using the barrister’s verbal thrust and parry, often spearing the heart of the question and sometimes panelists.
It was during one of these episodes in 1988 that he met Sydney author Kathy Lette, who won him away from his then-squeeze, the bounteous Nigella Lawson. He and Lette, a lissom, wise-cracking queen of chick-lit, married in 1990. They have two children who are old enough now to be “semi-detached”, as he puts it.
His cufflinks today are a gift from his wife: tiny silver handcuffs. “Only Kylie could get her wrist through those,” muses Lette.
While Lette writes humorously about the personal side of life – froth with a feminist bite – Robertson’s work has been exposing and fighting the worst in human nature, the systematic abuse of the vulnerable.
It began with Aborigines in Australia, a theme continued when he won a landmark 2007 suit to have the remains of Tasmanian Aborigines returned to their people from the British Natural History Museum. He spent five years as president of a special court into war atrocities in Sierra Leone that indicted former president Charles Taylor over crimes against humanity.
He has also acted for high-profile clients including WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange and fatwah-ed author Salman Rushdie, and represents the jailed former president of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Robertson’s books include Crimes Against Humanity – the latest edition required 300 more pages than the one before it, he points out grimly – and The Case Against The Pope, in which he used legal principles to argue the Vatican should be treated as a “rogue state” because of its shielding of paedophile priests. “We must view child abuse as a crime against humanity when it is done on that industrial-scale level,” he says.
So, why a book on nukes now? Hasn’t the nuclear threat been with us since Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Yes, he says, but for decades after that, it was largely a stable two-party threat, with the politics of Mutual Assured Destruction staying the trigger fingers of US and Soviet leaders. Later, the Big Five nations with nukes were all at a level of development where leaders had too much to lose to risk using it: “Wives and children and retirement plans.”
Now unstable nations with aggressive, authoritarian regimes have nuclear ambitions. “We haven’t had an explosion since Nagasaki so everyone is very complacent,” he says. “But we are probably about to fight a war to stop Iran [getting the bomb], and we don’t yet realise that this is Pandora’s Box. There’s nothing to stop any number of countries from reaching for nukes – the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has said it wants some, Saudi Arabia says it will buy some from Pakistan . . .
“We need to spool back the film and look at how dictators have behaved over the past 10 years.”
Robertson points out that Saddam Hussein used Scud missiles against Israel in Kuwait in 1990 even though Israel was not one of the combatants. “If he had had nuclear weapons to shoot at Israel he probably would have done so . . . You can imagine how much more difficult Syria would be if Assad had the bomb, or Libya if Gaddafi had had it. If he had kept building it, he would have had one by 2010, and he would have been quite capable of shooting a missile at Paris or London.”
So Iran’s nuclear program is even more dangerous than North Korea’s simply because it is in the Middle East and will inspire its neighbours to do likewise, he says.
Robertson argues that Iran’s government is particularly unfit to hold nukes because of its appalling history of human rights abuses: international assassinations, mass torture – including women prisoners of conscience given 15 lashes five times a day – and the 1998 slaughter of a suspected 7000 religious and political prisoners.
Robertson likens these murders to the mass graves of Srebrenica and the Japanese death marches of prisoners of war. It is Iran’s theocratic leaders whom he has dubbed “Mullahs without mercy”.
But still, he does not support a pre-emptive attack on Iran by Israel or the US.
He thinks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is acting precipitately because he fears the millennialist thinking of Iran’s Shia Muslim leaders. They believe that a messianic figure, the 12th imam, will return to the world to reward believers and destroy infidels following a time of great chaos and “screaming from the sky”.
Netanyahu and others, Robertson writes, “discern great danger in this . . . belief, so fervently promoted by [Iranian] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad . . . they fear that an excessively devout Supreme Leader . . . might one day decide to drop a nuclear bomb on Israel in much the same spirit, to create that chaos”.
But he warns that a pre-emptive strike in the absence of a direct threat from Iran would be illegal under international law and would create its own humanitarian disasters, killing thousands of civilians and releasing poisonous clouds into the atmosphere.
He doesn’t think Iran would use the bomb unless it was attacked and “the regime was tottering”.
He thinks the weapon used to fix the problem should be international law and wants laws passed that would criminalise governments that acquire new nukes, and political will to be harnessed to force disarmament by those nations that already have them.
Robertson says nuclear weapons should be banned entirely, as are dumdum bullets and landmines.
And the legal regime needs teeth, not just to gnash but to bite. The International Atomic Energy Agency is a poor monitor and has no power to punish those who breach its guidelines, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty has no enforcement mechanisms either, he says.
But does international law have any force? Wouldn’t this just be another lawyers’ picnic, with duplicitous or defiant states going their own way regardless?
Robertson points out that international law is now gaining great traction over war crimes with the prosecutions of leaders such as Charles Taylor, who copped a 50-year sentence, and Ratko Mladic, on trial over genocide in the Bosnian war.
“Aggressive authoritarian dictators have been given pause by the fact that there is now law. It’s not so much the dictator himself but the generals and the army heads. We saw that in Libya where the prospect of being charged with crimes against humanity . . . led generals to defect during the NATO strikes in 2011 . . . ”
Robertson acted for Human Rights Watch in a British case against the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet over his record of torture. There was an attempt to extradite Pinochet from Britain so he would face trial in Spain.
Britain found him too ill to stand trial but contrast the existence of that legal action, Robertson says, with the position he was in when he joined Amnesty International in 1979: “One of my first tasks was to write a letter about the torture chambers. ‘Dear General Pinochet . . .’ ”
Mullahs without Mercy by Geoffrey Robertson is published by Vintage Australia. RRP $34.95
Geoffrey Robertson will speak at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne at 6.30pm on December 14 and at the Sydney Opera House at 4pm on December 16.
First published in The Age.