Iraq crisis: A question of war: does UN hold the key?

The Foreign Office is sticking to a script, Anthony Bevins discovers
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The Independent Online
THE following is a transcript of a question-and-answer session held yesterday between The Independent and a Foreign Office spokesman:

The spokesman was asked whether it was still the government position, as stated by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons last week, that a United Nations Security Council Resolution would be sought by the United Kingdom for a clear, unambiguous endorsement of military action before such action was taken.

Spokesman: "The position on legal justification is as follows: The first point to make is that any military action which might involve UK forces will be firmly based on international law. The Charter of the UN allows for the use of force under the authority of the Security Council."

[He then put his answer into its known historical context, saying:] "The Security Council resolution adopted before the Gulf conflict authorised the use of force in order to restore international peace and security in the region.

"Iraq is in clear breach - UN Security Council members are agreed upon this - in clear breach of Resolution 687, which laid down the conditions for the ceasefire at the end of the conflict, and those conditions included a requirement on Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction under international supervision."

[After that historical parenthesis the spokesman then returned to the central question - the need for a new resolution, authorising the use of force now, saying:] "As for what we're seeking at the Security Council, we're looking for the adoption in the Security Council of a resolution at an appropriate time.

"Obviously, the timing is going to depend very much on what happens with [the UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan's visit to Baghdad, if indeed it goes ahead, which is the assumption.

"And we feel that it's desirable from every point of view [our italics] that the Security Council should give a firm and united signal [our italics] to Saddam of the unacceptability of Iraq's conduct, its obstructionism, and that a Security Council Resolution would be a good way of doing that.

"So the Government's going to continue to act in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the UN.

"But if military action is needed against Iraq, then the precise justification will depend on the circumstances of the time.

"At the moment, the main game in town, the focus of the next few days is going to be Kofi Annan's visit to Baghdad. That is as full an answer as I can give, I think."

Question: But it doesn't quite answer the question that Mr Cook answered in the House [on 10 February, Hansard, col 149]. Tam Dalyell asked: "Does the House have the clear, unambiguous undertaking that, before military action is taken, we will return to the Security Council of the United Nations for its clear, unambiguous endorsement of that military action?"

To which Mr Cook replied: "A large number of diplomats in the Foreign Office have been working towards precisely that objective [our italics] for several days. We hope to table that [our italics] resolution in New York this week and I hope that the resolution will gain the support of the Security Council, so certainly I give [Mr Dalyell] that assurance [our italics].

Spokesman: "Well, far be it from me to unsay anything Mr Cook has said.

"I have given you as clear an explanation as I can, as I understand it, from the legal point of view.

Question: But are you saying we have legal backing for the use of force without a new resolution?

Spokesman: "What I am saying is that Iraq is in breach. It is desirable to have a further Security Council resolution, which is why we're working towards that end."

Question: Desirable, but not necessary?

Spokesman: "I choose my words."

Question: Can I take it, therefore, that you are choosing your words from a script?

Spokesman: "I think you can take that."

Question: Can I ask who I need to speak to, to understand why the Foreign Office is not going as far as the Foreign Secretary?

Spokesman: "Of course we should go as far as the Foreign Secretary. We very often cite chapter and verse of what the Foreign Secretary has said."

Question: But not on this occasion?

Spokesman: "Well, I have just said I am not going to unsay anything the Foreign Secretary has said."

Question: All right, but would you go so far as to say, to repeat the words the Foreign Secretary used?

Spokesman: "Yes. I am giving you a gloss, an explanation of the Security Council resolution."

Question: Does that mean we could not take action without a further resolution of the Security Council?

Spokesman: "I have told you as much as I am going to tell you."

Letters, page 18

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