Does the Chilcot Inquiry Into the Iraq Invasion Matter?

The role of the United Kingdom in the international arena has been one of much debate over the past three decades, but more particularly since the ending of the Cold War. Summed up neatly by former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, the United Kingdom has been ‘punching above its weight’ internationally effectively, driving international policy at the UN during a period of American uncertainty following the disastrous American-led Somalian adventure in the early and mid-1990s and dominating the UN Security Council discussions under Sir David Hannay (then British ambassador to the UN).

This confidence has been knocked more recently through the long engagement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is Britain’s longest engagement since the nineteenth century, and while public sentiment is still generally behind engagement, Prime Minister Brown and American president Obama have been framing their words with care in the run-up to increased troop deployments, speaking of defending American and British streets from terrorism, rather than rebuilding some far away land’s political infrastructure.

Behind Afghanistan still lurks the spectre of Iraq. While American troops remain with boots on the ground, pressure to disengage from Iraq is increasing — British troops withdrew from the country earlier in 2009, and publically, the United States intend to have combat troops out of the arena by August 2010, having already withdrawn from Iraq’s cities in July 2009.  Given the strong feelings expressed by both supporters and opposers of the invasion of Iraq in 2001, the British electorate had repeatedly been informed by the government that an enquiry into the Iraq war would be held once British troops had been withdrawn.

Following the official launch of the Iraq Inquiry on 30 July 2009, the first evidence was heard on 16 November 2009.  According to Sir John Chilcot:

Our terms of reference are very broad, but the essential points, as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons, are that this is an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors. It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. We will therefore be considering the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.

The Inquiry committee members are Sir John Chilcot (Chairman), Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne and Baroness Usha Prashar.

The first week of the Inquiry’s evidential hearings proved interesting, and included:

  • British policy toward Iraq in 2001, 24 November, Chairman’s Opening Statement;  Simon Webb, Peter Ricketts and William Patey
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction, 25 November, William Ehrman and Tim Dowse
  • The Transatlantic Relationship, 26 November, Christopher Meyer
  • Developments in the United Nations, 27 November, Jeremy Greenstock

For many, it is this opening week which is probably the most important, and hinges upon two important questions — was the invasion of Iraq by the American-led international force legal, and, whether legal or not, when was the decision to invade taken?

British politicos and public interactions with the media, not least upon radio and television debates, demonstrate that the latter of these two questions is considered the most important. In many ways, the timing of the decision to invade is important, but not for the obvious reasons. The previous Clinton Administration had passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 in the United States, with a stated claim of regime change in Iraq, although not much publically perceptable action was subsequently seen. The Act aimed to work through the Iraqi opposition to establish regime change, but did not sanction invasion. There are numerous UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) on Iraq, but the most important were UNSCR 678, 687, and 782 which set out Iraq’s obligations over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the territorial integrity of Kuwait. UNSCR 1205 of 1998 framed the possibility of military action in the event of non-compliance under the WMD declarations. Discussions over the toppling of Saddam and regime change in Iraq by members of the public — including ex-soldiers who fought in the first Gulf War — focus upon the viability of ‘going all the way to Baghdad’ after expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait, often concluding that such a proposition was not possible due to the resources available and the threat of becoming bogged down in a long guerilla war. Other arguments for removing Saddam are premised upon the authoritarian and inhumane nature of the regime, and the humanitiarian reasons for invasion. However, these discussions miss the point. The first Gulf War was fought to preserve the territorial integrity of a sovereign state which had been invaded by another state, as protected under the UN Charter, and the responsibility of the UN Security Council to preserve — i.e., to protect Kuwait’s right to exist as a state against invasion by Iraq. To then ‘go on to Bagdhad’ would have violated the very ideals and international obligations under which Iraqi forces had been expelled from Kuwait. Humanitarian intervention was a very popular premise in the early 1990s, until events in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Somalia (amongst others) deterred further military adventures on the part of Western powers in the name of humanitarian intervention. Besides, humanitarian affairs falls under the UN’s 6th Committee and not the 7th (the Security Council), and has no remit under international law for military action on its humanitarian merits.

These international obligations then frame the engagement with Iraq until the decision to invade was taken. The Second Gulf War was undertaken due to Iraq’s perceived refusal to oblige with UNSCRs on WMD since UNSCR 687, despite the work of the UN’s Weapons Inspection teams. This was made clear under Tony Blair’s statements to the House of Commons, and was the remit under which the House of Commons voted to take the United Kingdom to war. If UNSCR 1441 is seen as giving permission for military action — despite omitting the key wording of ‘all necessary measures’ — then this is only due to the obligations of Iraq under the WMD issues included in previous UNSC resolutions. Only subsequently has the public vocabulary changed to include ‘regime change’ — something which is illegal under international law, under which the two Gulf Wars were fought. If regime change was the true reason for invasion, UNSCR1441 does not permit military action for this, and this then makes the invasion illegal, and its proponents and instigators liable to prosecution for war crimes.

This is why the timing of the decision to invade is so important. If a decision was made, as intimated by some evidence already given to the Chilcot Inquiry, in a private meeting between Tony Blair and George Bush early in 2002 to invade Iraq to instigate regime change, then the legality of the invasion is questionable (to say the least) under UNSCR1441. 

This is why those private meetings between President George Bush and Prime Minister Blair are so crucial to the Inquiry. However, only George Bush and Tony Blair are able to speak of the events in those meetings. Blair is to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, and this is one reason why the Inquiry matters.

Comments

  1. I can’t help but wonder: then what? Say, the invasion was illegal. What do we do? Of course, it’s good that an inquiry is held to remind leaders that they, too, can be held accountable, but say, the inquiry concludes that the war had little or no legal foundation whatsoever — it’s not like we can undo it.

  2. A chap I know says that “He hopes they find it to be illegal, and then they can hang those bastards (Mr Blair et al)” but that’s probably quite unlikely. The idea of charging a British Prime Minister, much less a US president with war crimes is unlikely as long as those states hold influence in such offices as the UNSC. It’d be too embarassing for the next governments (Obama, Brown or Cameron) to send their predecessor to be tried in the same chair as the likes of Milosovic.