After 7 years, the Chilcot Inquiry to identify lessons to be learned from the Iraq conflict has reported. Martin Browne gives his reaction and expert legal analysis.
The decision to go to war before peaceful options exhausted, the exaggeration of WMD evidence, and the inadequate conditions in which the legality of the war was concluded, are all points that could establish the existence of a deliberate (wilful) deceit in the conduct of the Prime Minister.
This is particularly the case in respect of Blair’s strategising for regime change as early as December 2001, and his reluctance to engage in consultation at the key moments when deciding to take military action.
An astounding decision
The decision to take military action followed an exchange between Blair and Lord Goldsmith. But, notably, the critical decision about Saddam’s breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 was made by Blair alone, without consulting lawyers, and no formal record of his reasons for the decision was made. Chilcot concludes that mistakes were made by Blair in failing to request written advice from Goldsmith, and the basis for further material breaches of 1441 should have been discussed in cabinet or cabinet committee, particularly with Straw and Hoon, Ministers with Responsibility. The key second draft advice from Goldsmith of 30th January was, astoundingly, not seen by anyone outside of No. 10.
This secluded process means there is no written record, or witness evidence that allows Chilcot to give an ‘ultimate conclusion’ on the validity of that decision. Chilcot is right to excoriate the lack of transparency and consultation. His conclusion that there was in March 2003 “no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein”, combined with criticism of the way the decision was made amount to the strongest condemnation of the decision taken by any official review of the Iraq war.
Blair’s failure to plan
Failure to plan is a key area. Chilcot places the blame for the failure to plan solely at Blair’s feet. The omissions of the Prime Minister include; the failure to establish clear ministerial oversight of post-conflict strategy, to ensure a resourced plan was in place, and to press the US to develop joint plans. All of these ‘omissions’ as Chilcot terms them, otherwise known as mistakes or failures, together prevented the UK from achieving its objectives and increased the risk that the UK would be unable to respond to the unexpected. In summary, Blair’s mistakes increased the risks for UK soldiers.
Chilcot sets out what was known from the intelligence reports and legal advice. Chilcot stops short of calling Blair’s evidence to the Inquiry a ‘lie’ but essentially dismisses his defence of ‘hindsight’. It is clear that Blair, and those around him, disregarded the risks identified in reports in 2002-2003 that accurately set out the consequences that followed.
Critical missing evidence
Responsibility for lack of adequate equipment lies with the Ministry of Defence, but it is not clear exactly who within the department was responsible for monitoring and correcting equipment shortfalls. This critical evidence is missing from the Chilcot Report, and this point is particularly acute for some of the soldiers’ families, there may not be accountability for those mistakes without future inquiries. Notwithstanding, Chilcot is damning about the delays to the replacement of the snatch Land Rover, and effective body armour. Internal department reviews should be carried out and the MoD should not rely on the passage of time as sufficient corrective action.
Impeachment unlikely to succeed
Notwithstanding the misleading statements, and exaggerations identified by Chilcot, the parliamentary process of impeachment has been termed ‘obsolote’ by the House of Commons library, and the likelihood of success is low. Crucially, more appropriate judicial proceedings may exist and should be explored.
Failure as an Occupying Power
As an Occupying Power the UK had legal obligations including to maintain law and order, protect human rights and the population in general. Despite being given responsibility by Resolution 1483, the UK failed to fulfil those obligations. Little thought was given to the role of UK personnel in occupation, and no governance arrangements were designed before invasion.
Chilcot’s conclusions sets out a basis for legal claims by those affected by the UK’s failure to fulfil its obligations through the complete failure to plan for governance of southern Iraq.
‘Without legal basis’
The view of myself and my colleague Iain Scobbie is that the lack of imminent threat, and strong criticism of the “revival” decision taken by Blair without legal advice, means that Chilcot has concluded that the invasion was in breach of the UN Charter and without a legal basis. He just hasn’t said those exact words.