Philippe Sands: So what was the real Iraq advice?

Share

Bit by bit a fuller picture is emerging as to the circumstances in which the legal advice on the war in Iraq was received and acted upon. During the course of the past week, contributions by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, have provided more information, but without providing a greater degree of reassurance as to the integrity of governance.

Bit by bit a fuller picture is emerging as to the circumstances in which the legal advice on the war in Iraq was received and acted upon. During the course of the past week, contributions by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, have provided more information, but without providing a greater degree of reassurance as to the integrity of governance.

In my book Lawless World, I set out the circumstances in which the Attorney General gave equivocal legal advice on 7 March 2003, in a 13-page minute to the Prime Minister. This indicated that it would be safer to have a second UN Security Council resolution that clearly authorised the use of force. It also recognised that without a second resolution the use of force against Iraq could be found to be illegal by an international court. Just 10 days later, the Attorney General set out a different view in an answer to a parliamentary question. This presented an unequivocal view that force would be lawful without a second resolution.

Last Thursday, under questioning from the Labour chairman of the Public Administration Committee, Sir Andrew is reported to have stated that the answer to the parliamentary question was the "definitive statement" of the Attorney General's views. Even more significantly, he reportedly told the Committee: "There is not a longer version of that advice. There is no other version." This appears to confirm - for the first time - that the Attorney General never revised in writing the formal legal advice he gave to the Prime Minister on 7 March 2003.

If this account is correct, then it would appear that Britain went to war without the Attorney General having given written and formal legal advice that fully supported the view set out in the answer to the parliamentary question. A further statement from the Prime Minister seemed to confirm that the Attorney General's final advice was given only orally and never reduced into writing. That would be truly astonishing, reflecting adversely on the conduct of government in this country.

Equally important is the lateness of the Attorney General's advice. On Friday The Independent reported Sir Andrew as having indicated to the Public Accounts Committee that there was not enough time for Lord Goldsmith to prepare a fuller statement because it was required quickly, when it became clear there would be no second resolution in the Security Council. That claim is hopeless.

The legal questions on which the Attorney General had to advise were whether the authorisation to use force against Iraq under Security Council resolutions 678 and 687 could revive on a material breach by Iraq of its WMD obligations, and if so whether the determination of a material breach was a matter for the Security Council or Britain and the US alone. Those questions could have been answered at any time after resolution 1441 had been adopted, in November 2002. They could have been answered in January or February 2003, as I understand the Foreign Office legal advisers wanted.

For reasons unknown, the Prime Minister chose to wait until the last possible moment to ask his Attorney General to give formal written advice, when British troops were already amassed on Iraq's borders. The Prime Minister must take responsibility for having left it so late. There can be no justification for any claim, as Sir Andrew appears to have done, that the Attorney General may have run out of time.

The Prime Minister needs to clarify the facts and bring an end to the confusion surround his government's various accounts of the circumstances in which legal advice, or opinion, or views were given and acted upon. In the public interest, he should publish all the advice in full. Further delay serves only to undermine trust and confidence in his government.

Philippe Sands QC is Professor of Laws at University College London and author of Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there