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: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links