As Tony Blair’s Cabinet rubber stamped his decision to invade Iraq, nobody paused to ask whether what they were doing was legal under international law, according to Sir John Chilcot’s scathing verdict.
The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, twice sent Tony Blair legal advice which no one else saw. Then, when called upon to provide an opinion, he first of all said that the United Nations would have to pass a new resolution authorising the war – then changed his mind a few days later.
He should have been asked to give a written explanation about how he came to the eventual conclusion that the invasion could go ahead legally, but there was “little appetite” to go into the legalities, Sir John concluded.
As the prospect of war loomed, Tony Blair came under pressure form the Cabinet Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, to reassure civil servants that what he was proposing did not conflict with international law.
Mr Blair’s advisers had dragged their feet over seeking a legal opinion, but in December, three months before the invasion, Peter Goldsmith received an instruction sent jointly by Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence to draw up a legal opinion – but he was firmly told not to hurry because it was not needed immediately.
Lord Goldsmith drafted his reply on 14 January, but only Tony Blair knew about it. The Attorney General was at a Cabinet meeting two days later, but did not mention the subject. That was wrong, Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry decided. On 14 January with Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary and Mr Turnbull should all have been shown Lord Goldsmith’s advice.
Lord Goldsmith sent Tony Blair another note on 30 January. No one else saw it.
Finally, on 7 March, less than two weeks before the outbreak of war, Lord Goldsmith set out his formal advice that the “safest legal course” would be to get the United Nations Security Council to pass a second resolution, reinforcing Resolution 1441, passed the previous November, to give an invasion legal force. He warned that relying on resolution 1441 might not be “sustainable”.
But the Foreign Office’s hopes of obtaining a second resolution collapsed, in the face of combined opposition by France, Germany and Russia. Then on 13 March, just six days before the war began, Lord Goldsmith announced that he had had another think about it and had reached the “better view” that a second resolution was not needed after all.
The next day, Mr Blair’s private secretary informed the law officers in writing that it was “the Prime Minister’s unequivocal view” that Iraq had breached resolution 1441. But Sir John Chilcot’s report concludes scathingly: “It is unclear what specific grounds Mr Blair relied upon in reaching this view.”
The report added that as the Cabinet backed Mr Blair’s decision to go to war “there was little appetite to question Lord Goldsmith about his advice, and no substantive discussion of the legal issues was recorded.
“Lord Goldsmith should have been asked to provide written advice which fully reflected the position on 17 March, explained the legal basis on which the UK could take military action and set out the risks of a legal challenge.”
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