How the British Attorney General changed his legal advice on Iraq war

A day after the two most senior legal experts [Sir Michael Wood and Elizabeth Wilmshurst] at the British Foreign Office told the Iraq inquiry their advice that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal was ignored by Tony Blair’s government, Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith faced the inquiry panel on Wednesday (January 27).  

The main points of Goldsmith’s evidence under close cross-examination:

  • He admitted to changing his earlier opinion that an invasion without a specific United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force would be illegal, party due to American and British diplomatic accounts of private UN negotiations.  
  • Until the first week of February 2003, about six weeks before Iraq was invaded, Goldsmith had repeatedly warned the Prime Minister’s Office that a second UN resolution was necessary.
  • But after a visit to the United States, where he met officials including Secretary of States Condoleezza Rice, Goldsmith said he was convinced that experienced US lawyers would not have ‘stumbled into’ giving France a chance to veto a new resolution on military action.
  • He had to decide which side he would prefer to be on.
  • Goldsmith said it was ‘impossible’ for him at the time to ask the French what their legal interpretation [of going to war] was.
  • One inquiry panel member, Roderick Lyne, challenged Goldsmith to explain the ‘gap’ between French and Russian public statements and ‘second-hand’ descriptions of their ‘private’ positions [as shown by American officials].
  • It was pointed out on BBC Newsnight that exchanges on the question of legality remained confined to Lord Goldsmith and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office.

Britain and the United States went to the UN Security Council a second time to get authorization for war. Russia and France would have vetoed it had it been put to vote; in the end, there was not even a majority of Security Council members for it.

As authorization could not be obtained, the conclusion must be that the Security Council did not give approval for military action in Iraq. Therefore, the invasion in March 2003 had no legal basis.

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