Some Initial Thoughts On Chilcot and the Legailty of the Iraq War

by George_East on July 7, 2016

Bush and BlairAs if we haven’t had enough to be thinking about in the last couple of weeks, Sir John Chilcot chose this week of all the weeks in the seven years he has been writing his report on the Iraq war to release his report.  The media has focused heavily on the report’s criticisms of Tony Blair – how he personally pledged himself unconditionally to the George W Bush’s cause as early as July 2002; how the evidence presented to parliament and the public to demonstrate the risks posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime was not supported by the evidence; how war was not an act of last resort; how as a result the UN had been undermined and how planning was so poor that British troops were sent to war ill-equipped and British diplomats with no clue about what to do next.

One of the questions though that Chilcot left unresolved was whether the intervention in Iraq was illegal.   This was not wholly surprising, there were no international lawyers on Chilcot’s panel and his remit did not require him to address the issue.   This has led many on the left (particularly on the Corbynite left) to shout ‘war criminal’ at Tony Blair and other members of the Blair administration, and left Blair himself and many of those who supported the war to claim some sort of vindication (a kind of look at the amount of criticism in the report, yet even Chicot wasn’t prepared to say the war was illegal, defence).

However, although Chilcot did not address the question directly, he did devote a whole 170 page section to the issue of how the legal advice had evolved in the run up to War and the process that had been employed by the Blair inner circle in disseminating that advice.    Chilcot also concluded in his summary of his conclusions that the ‘circumstances’ in which the Blair government had concluded that   military action would be lawful was ‘far from satisfactory’.

The key player in all of this was, of course, the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, who went from advising that the war without a second UN resolution was probably not lawful to deciding that a second resolution was unnecessary in the space of 10 days.  A change of view that still remains difficult to explain, though Goldsmith did meet members of the US Justice Department between the two advices.

What appears from the Chilcot Report is that this change in view was barely interrogated at all by the Blair cabinet, an extraordinary revelation given the gravity of what was being decided and the very loud cries at the time in the legal world and the media that a military intervention in Iraq without a second UN resolution would be unlawful.   It shows that although much of the blame for the Britain joining in the Bush adventurism in Iraq lays squarely on Tony Blair himself, his wider cabinet cannot escape some of the blame.

Something which the much of the press and Blair’s Corbynite critics seem to have elided though, is that the question of whether the military intervention in Iraq was legal and whether Tony Blair himself is guilty of war crimes are two different questions.

Although I am a lawyer, I am not a public international lawyer.  Nor am I criminal lawyer (though our very own Ray North is).

I hope though over the coming few weeks to explore these issues in a bit more detail – to try to take the sloganeering and rhetoric out of the debate and get down to looking at the relevant law itself and the arguments either way, to see whether Chilcot might assist in resolving these questions which have hung over British politics for the last 13 years.

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