Clegg “gaffe” prompts warning from Sands

by Chris Ames

The Guardian is making a lot of Nick Clegg’s alleged “gaffe” at PMQs today when he described the Iraq war as illegal:

a leading international lawyer warned that the statement by a government minister in such a formal setting could increase the chances of charges against Britain in international courts.

Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London, said: “A public statement by a government minister in parliament as to the legal situation would be a statement that an international court would be interested in, in forming a view as to whether or not the war was lawful.”

The Inquiry told the Guardian that it does not intend to pronounce on the legality of the war but, the Guardian says,

it is understood that the Lib Dem leader feels freer to speak out against the alleged illegality of the Iraq war after the recent publication of previously classified documents by the Chilcot inquiry.

Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, wrote to Sir John Chilcot on 25 June to allow the inquiry to publish more documents relating to the legal advice. The most significant of these documents was a note on 30 January 2003 by the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to Tony Blair.

In the note Goldsmith wrote: “I remain of the view that the correct legal interpretation of [UN security council] resolution 1441 is that it does not authorise the use of military force without a further determination by the security council.”

Goldsmith famously changed his mind on the legality of the war in March 2003 after Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the former chief of the defence staff, demanded a clear undertaking that military action would be lawful. Boyce feared that British forces could face legal action unless the invasion had legal cover.

On 7 March 2003, after visiting Washington, Goldsmith told Blair that a new UN resolution may not be necessary, although invading Iraq without one could lead to Britain being indicted before an international court. Ten days later Goldsmith ruled that an invasion would be lawful.

Sands said: “Lord Goldsmith never gave a written advice that the war was lawful. Nick Clegg is only repeating what Lord Goldsmith told Tony Blair on 30 January 2003: that without a further UN security resolution the war would be illegal and Jack Straw knows that.”

3 comments to this article

  1. Iain Paton

    on July 22, 2010 at 9:37 am -

    The question is: what does this mean?

    Will there be pressure for further inquiry after Chilcot? I’m confident that Chilcot will make enough veiled criticisms of the principal architects of the war to make their established narratives unsustainable, couched in ‘lessons identified’ terms. He may even go further with certain officials and I suspect Campbell in particular will be slaughtered.

    It all leads back to Blair. His office subverted the machinery of government and ignored checks and balances. A few politicans and officials acted with complete personal and moral integrity, many discharged their responsibilities to the best of their abilities within the context of unfolding events, and some stopped at nothing to give Blair the case for war, twisting the facts to suit the narrative or acquiescing in this process.

    So, what can happen? Another inquiry, perhaps a Parliamentary inquiry? UK court proceedings for maladministration or misconduct in public office? International court proceedings…but where, and with charges brought by whom? Or will it be enough to see carefully cultivated reputations unravelled, and the likes of Blair pariahs other than in the conference suites and palaces of organisations and nations of dubious repute?

  2. Anthony

    on July 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm -

    I agree that the Guardian is hyping this up. The only issue is who does Clegg speak for when he stands in for Cameron. Logically, he speaks for the coalition (as usual), in which case perhaps he should have been more guarded in his remarks. But so what? We already knew what he thought of the lawfulness of the invasion.

    Considering that Philippe Sands was formerly a close adviser to Clegg, and expressed his personal mortification rather emotionally when Clegg got into bed with Cameron, the Guardian might have got a rather more objective view had they asked somebody else to comment.

    “Parliament was rocked to its foundations yesterday when a minister said what he actually believed. The unprecedented nature of this outrage left MPs open-mouthed in horror and constitutionalists pored through Bagehot etc etc ….”

  3. michael shaw

    on July 22, 2010 at 2:29 pm -

    Is it a ‘gaffe’ to state what you really think, and what most people have long since concluded? Is it a ‘warning’ (of an increased risk of legal consequences for our country), when in the interests of justice so many of us are desperate for the perpetrators to be held to account?