Today was the start of an extraordinary week for assessing the impact international law had on the decision of the US, the UK and their allies in going to war with Iraq in 2003. The UK Iraq Inquiry today heard the testimony of Sir Michael Wood, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Legal Advisor from 1999 to 2006, and Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Deputy Legal Advisor at the time of the Iraq war, who resigned from her post once the invasion began (BBC report). Tomorrow the Inquiry will hear the testimony of Lord Goldsmith, at the time the Attorney General , empowered to give authoritative legal advice to the government, who ultimately, after much procrastination and indeed after shifting his own position, ruled the invasion to be lawful. On Friday it will be Tony Blair’s turn.
The Inquiry, which is advised on legal matters by the former ICJ President Rosalyn Higgins (for more, see Dapo’s earlier post), focused on the main legal rationale for the invasion – the so-called revival argument. In brief, this argument posits that Resolution 1441’s finding that Iraq was in material breach of previous Security Council resolution, and Iraq’s failure to take the final opportunity that the UNSC gave it to comply, revived the authorization for the use of force in UNSC Res 678, that was suspended but not extinguished by UNSC Res 687. The Inquiry’s investigation also raises many issues regarding the proper role of government legal advisors, that will be the main subject of this post.
The readers might recall our previous post on declassified memoranda on the lawfulness of the Iraq war by the US Department of Justice Office of the Legal Counsel, which like the Attorney-General in the UK provides authoritative legal advice to the executive. Like Lord Goldsmith, the OLC thought the revival argument to be correct, but it did so with far less caveats than their UK counterpart. On the other hand, it now transpires that the FCO Legal Advisor’s consistent advice had been that the revival argument just does not work on the text of Resolution 1441, which if properly interpreted requires further UNSC action. The Iraq Inquiry website now has several declassified memos and other correspondence from the FCO Legal Advisor to various government officials. (Incidentally, I don’t think that the US State Department Legal Advisor’s memoranda on the Iraq war have been declassified yet, unlike the OLC ones). These documents are invaluable for assessing the decision-making process in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
As Sir Michael’s testimony began, several new documents were declassified and were contemporaneously used by the Inquiry. The one which struck me the most was a letter by Jack Straw, then the Foreign Secretary, to Sir Michael in response to his legal advice that the invasion would be unlawful without further UNSC action, stating the following:
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