British government legal experts break ranks with Tony Blair on Iraq war

Seventy-two hours before Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair appears at the Iraq inquiry in London, pressure is piling up on Blair and his close advisers who took the decision to join President George W Bush in launching the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

On Tuesday (January 26, 2010) the senior government lawyer at the time, Sir Michal Wood, told the inquiry in a written statement that the invasion of Iraq had “no legal basis in international law”. Sir Michael was the highest-ranking legal adviser at the British Foreign Office when Iraq was invaded.

In his statement, he said he disagreed with the advice of the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith.

Sir Michael considered the use of military force in March 2003 to be ‘contrary to international law’, but said that Jack Straw, then foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s government, rejected the advice. Instead, Mr Straw told the US Vice President Dick Cheney that Britain would ‘prefer’ a second UN resolution, but it would be ‘OK’ if they tried and failed [in getting the resolution passed in the Security Council].

Sir Michael disclosed: “He [foreign secretary] took the view that I was being very dogmatic and that international law was pretty vague and that he wasn’t used to people taking such a firm position. When he [Straw] had been at the Home Office, he had often been advised things were unlawful but he had gone ahead anyway and won in the courts.”

Sir Michael told the Iraq inquiry that this was probably the first and only occasion that a minister rejected his legal advice in this way.

Sir Michael’s deputy at the Foreign Office was Elizabeth Wilmshurst. She followed him to the Iraq inquiry. She disclosed that the opinion of the entire legal team was unanimous that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal [without specific UN approval for the use of force]. She said the view among civil service officials was that an invasion without such legal basis would be a ‘nightmare scenario’.

Wilmshurst said that she regarded the invasion of Iraq illegal and therefore did not feel able to continue in her post. Wilmshurst decided to leave government. Explaining her decision, she said she would have been required to ‘support and maintain the Government’s position’ in international forums. The rules of international law on the use of force by States are at the heart of international law.

Wilmshurst said: “Collective security, as opposed to unilateral military action, was a central purpose of the Charter of the United Nations. Acting contrary to the Charter, as I perceived the Government to be doing, would have the consequence of damaging the United Kingdom’s reputation as a State committed to the rule of law in international relations and to the United Nations.”

The Iraq inquiry in the United Kingdom continues in the wake of the recent Dutch inquiry, which concluded that the Netherland’s political support for the 2003 invasion had no legal basis. That, and the weight of evidence emerging in London, would, in my view, make it very difficult for the UK inquiry to come out with a conclusion without an acknowledgement of that being the case.

The Iraq inquiry in Britain is to continue beyond May 2010, by when a general election is due. The consequences of the decision to go to war in Iraq will undoubtedly be a significant topic of the political debate in the run up to the election.

In Iraq itself, a suicide car bomber killed at least 18 people and injured around 80 others at a government forensics laboratory in Baghdad on Tuesday. The latest attack came as funerals were taking place of victims of the previous day’s bomb attacks, killing more than 35 people. The BBC correspondent in the Iraqi capital, Jim Muir, says these attacks are clearly coordinated and appear to be aimed at undermining security as Iraq prepares for a general election in March.