Fresh revelations have emerged describing the frenetic efforts of the Blair government prior to the launching of the Iraq war to find a legal pretext for its participation in the US-led attack. Just two weeks before the invasion began, the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, warned Prime Minister Tony Blair that a war could violate international law.
On Wednesday, February 23, the Guardian published extracts from a soon to be published book, Lawless World: America and the making and breaking of global rules. The author is Phillipe Sands, a professor of international law at University College London.
Sands has used his connections in senior legal circles to provide a detailed account of the Labour government’s manoeuvres to secure legal advice giving official imprimatur to the war.
The war’s legality was an issue for the Blair government not due to any respect for international law, but because it feared future prosecution. The published extracts reveal that the prime minister was conscious that the invasion, as an act of preemptive aggression, had little or no basis in international law but was determined to proceed regardless.
Having decided on this course of action, Sands discloses that to protect itself against any potential consequences, the government “took steps to put together a legal team to prepare for possible international litigation.”
The government’s concerns were shared by Britain’s senior military leaders. “I spent a good deal of time recently in the Balkans making sure Milosevic was behind bars,” the Guardian reported General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the army, as saying. “I have no intention of ending up next to him in the Hague.”
The chief of defence staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, sought a clear assurance from the attorney general on March 10, 2003, as to the war’s legality. According to Sands, Boyce wanted to be sure that British soldiers would not be “put through the mill” at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Britain, unlike the US, is a signatory to the ICC.
Under the government’s ministerial code of conduct, the attorney general is to be consulted “in good time before the government is committed to critical decisions involving legal considerations.” Attorney General Goldsmith was first asked about the legality of an invasion of Iraq at a meeting with several government ministers in July 2002.
“They were reminded,” Sands’s book states, “that the prime minister had told President Bush that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change, so long as a coalition had been created and UN weapons inspectors had been given a further opportunity to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”
Goldsmith informed the ministers that a war could not be justified on self-defence or humanitarian grounds, and that the goal of regime change would be unlawful. This opinion was again confirmed after the attorney general considered legal advice with the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence.