Much of the debate in the UK regarding the Iraq war has centred on the legality of the use of force. There was much public debate on the issue in the lead up to the war in 2003 and sustained interest in it since. The appearance before the UK inquiry, this past week, of Tony Blair and of the main UK government legal advisers involved in considering the legal position has revived this debate (see Marko’s posts here and here). What last week’s proceedings have also demonstrated is that international law played a significant role in the internal deliberations of the UK government and had a role in shaping policy. In short international law mattered! In this post, I do not intend to discuss the substance of whether the legal position ultimately taken by the UK Attorney General was correct. Many (Marko included) have demonstrated the flaws in it. What I wish to consider are the ways in which international law mattered in policy formation and why did it matter to the relevant policy makers in the UK.
The first evidence to support to the claim that international law mattered in the process is that there was much discussion within government of whether the use of force would be legal or not and discussion of the conditions under which the use of force would be legal. Much of the relevant internal documents can now be found on the Inquiry’s website by scrolling to the bottom of the page for 26 January. As would be expected, the legal advisers at the Foreign Office (FCO) and the Attorney General devoted much time and paper to advising on the legality of the war. However, what is perhaps more important here is the relevant policy makers also devoted much time and attention to the question of legality of the conflict. The then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, debated this question both with his own legal advisers and with the Attorney General. Marko has discussed some of this correspondence between Jack Straw and Michael Wood (the FCO Legal Adviser) in his earlier post. Readers can view the correspondence and record of meetings between Straw and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith here and here. Perhaps more important is the discussion of the legal question by the Prime Minister. In his own evidence before the Iraq Inquiry, Tony Blair spent quite some time dealing with the legal question.
Of course, the fact that the legal issue was discussed does not by itself indicate that the legality of the war under international law was regarded as important by policy makers. However, what is significant is not just that the matter was discussed but that senior policy makers engaged with it seriously. As it happens the two political figures in the UK that had primary responsibility for shaping the Iraq policy in 2002 were lawyers – Tony Blair and Jack Straw. Perhaps this made it easier and more natural for them to engage with the law. Jack Straw in a letter of 6 Feb. 2003 spent 6 pages on the interpretation and significance of Res. 1441. In all probability he drafted this letter himself since we know that his legal advisers took a different from the view expressed in this letter. Not only did senior policy makers engage with international law seriously, they regarded it as a matter of importance. In his appearance before the Inquiry, Tony Blair stated that:
There was then the legal question, which was very important, because Peter [Lord Goldsmith] had drawn my attention to that. [p. 99 Transcript of Blair Evidence]