Iraq inquiry hears Blair and Straw were told attack 'unlawful'

 

FORMER BRITISH prime minister Tony Blair and former foreign secretary Jack Straw were warned by foreign office lawyers that the 2003 Iraq invasion was illegal under international law without a second UN order, two former senior officials yesterday told the Iraq inquiry.

The evidence from Sir Michael Wood and Elizabeth Wilmshurst have damaged Mr Straw’s claim last week that he reluctantly agreed to the invasion.

It also compounded the risks facing Mr Blair when he appears before the inquiry on Friday.

Sir Michael, who has not spoken publicly since he left the foreign office, told the inquiry: “I considered that the use of force against Iraq in March 2003 was contrary to international law. In my opinion, that use of force had not been authorised by the UN Security Council and had no other legal basis in international law.”

Sir Michael served as the foreign office’s senior legal adviser between 2001 and 2006.

The inquiry also published a series of letters and memos. The communications are between officials and from officials to ministers which have never previously come to light.

In a January 2003 letter to Mr Straw, Sir Michael told him that “without extraordinary circumstances” – which did not exist – the UK could “not lawfully use force against Iraq” to get it to heed UN demands to surrender weapons of mass destruction.

The example of the Kosovo military action in 1999 – when the UK and the US bombed Serbian forces – could not be used because the “overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe” that existed there then did not exist in Iraq at the time.

However, Mr Straw replied that he “noted” the advice but “do not accept it”.

He added that lawyers had often told him when he was home secretary that initiatives were unlawful only for the courts to eventually decide otherwise.

Mr Straw then said he hoped for a second UN resolution “for political reasons”, but there “was a strong case to be made” that the first UN edict was “a sufficient basis in international law to justify military action”.

In another letter published yesterday by the inquiry, Mr Straw wrote to the attorney general complaining: “I have been very forcefully struck by the paradox in the culture of government lawyers, which is the less certain the law is, the more certain in their views they become.”

In one letter, Sir Michael told Mr Straw’s office in August 2002 that British soldiers and officials would be “potentially liable to charges of murder” unless the then-attorney general Lord Goldsmith agreed there were legal grounds for war.

Subsequently, Lord Goldsmith accepted the legal basis for the invasion.

In her testimony, Ms Wilmshurst – who was Sir Michael’s deputy and who was the only official to quit her job in protest at the invasion – said the way that ministers considered the legal issues surrounding it was “lamentable”.