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Are Powerful Politicians and Ordinary People Equal Under the Law

On April the 4th 2023, Donald Trump became the first American President to be arrested since 1872.

Trump was brought into police custody where he pleaded not guilty to 34 felony charges of falsifying business records. The charges were in connection with alleged campaign finance violations during the 2016 presidential election.

Donald Trump became the first US president since 1876 to be arrested, he pled not guilty to 34 felony charges. Credits: Gage Skidmore

In addition to this unprecedented legal move in the United States, on the 17th of March the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, over alleged unlawful deportation and transfer of children from Ukraine during the Russian invasion. This is by far and away the most prominent political figure the ICC has issued a warrant for and a very unparalleled action.

These two politically momentous legal acts have brought into focus the question of whether or not powerful political figures are truly equal under the law to ordinary people; and whether more political elites should be facing legal trials for alleged crimes they have committed.

These actions being so unprecedented has led many, especially those who support Trump or are more critical of the western political establishment, to argue these moves are politically motivated. The fact that legal indictments are so rare against powerful politicians in the US and, indeed, internationally is no doubt a motivating factor for some of these suspicions.

This brings into question whether or not these arrests mark a good faith move from prosecutors to start to hold even the most powerful in society to account. Could this become more of a trend? Or, as many Trump supporters argue, are they simply politicised attacks from one section of those in power (be it the democrats or Americans) against another (Donald Trump or Russia).

There is a history of powerful politicians not standing trial when many in society were calling for it. From Richard Nixon for Watergate to Tony Blair for the invasion of Iraq. In the United Kingdom specifically, according to ONS statistics, public trust in political parties and government is pretty low with only 20% of people trusting political parties.

A ‘stop the war’ demonstrations calling for Blair to go on trial for the invasion of Iraq in 2019. Credits: under creative commons license

In this backdrop I spoke to people around Strathclyde University in Glasgow to see what they thought of Trump’s arrest and whether or not Politicians are held to the same legal standards as average people.

Most people I spoke to were young university students, perhaps unsurprisingly, they were all quite sceptical of the idea that politicians are held to an equal legal standard as average people.

Emir, a 24-year-old Turkish student argued that “[egalitarianism] is not valid for politicians” especially in his home country, but also all over the world. 20-year-old Lauren pointed to the number of contacts and networks top politicians have and said she doubted “they would get as much as a punishment as a normal person”.

Conner, a 21-year-old student, argued that the extent to which politicians are accountable to the legal system depends on how “how many connections they have”. With most people I spoke to having a similar view and seeing top politicians as operating on a different level to most people.

Calls for influential British politicians to face trial often go unanswered with two major cases this century being Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq and David Cameron’s involvement in the Greensill Scandal and Libyan intervention in 2011 and bombings of Syria in 2015.

In the case of Tony Blair despite 37% of the public supporting him going on trial for the invasion, according to a 2010 poll, and the UN Security General the the time, Kofi Annan, stating in 2004 that “from [The UN’s] point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.” Blair has never been put on trial, despite the invasion killing up to a million people, according to some estimates, and destabilising the entire region.

Ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s prosecution for war crimes was blocked in 2019 by British Judges. While the ICC says it will not put Blair on Trial due to a ‘crime of aggression’ not being able to be prosecuted retroactively. Credits: Web Summit

Most people I spoke to thought that Blair should face trial: Patrick, a 23-year-old college student argued that there is “pretty compelling evidence of misinformation and misconduct” that he attributes to Tony Blair and the government at the time.

The international criminal court introduced “a crime of aggression” as a crime under international law only after the invasion and - due largely to western lobbying- states cannot be tried under the law retroactively. Making any potential war criminal related to Iraq quite arbitrarily immune from prosecution.

Actions like this cast doubt on our legal systems’ ability to hold powerful politicians (who often help shape the system) in the UK, like Tony Blair, to account. But with recent high-profile arrests and warrants is there hope that this could mark an increased willingness to hold top politicians to account? Or are these legal actions just indicators of one faction of powerful politicians clashing with another?


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