Page last updated at 17:49 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

Iraq war legitimacy 'questionable' says ex-diplomat

Sir Jeremy on support for the invasion

The Iraq war was of "questionable legitimacy" even though it is unlikely to be proved illegal, a former senior diplomat has said.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK's ambassador to the UN in 2003, said the invasion did not have the backing of most UN members or the UK public.

But he said he believed the US and UK had "established" its legality and that it had never been challenged in court.

The inquiry is looking into the background to the 2003 invasion.

Inquiry members, headed by Sir John Chilcot, are initially concentrating on UK-US relations in the run-up to war and the UK's assessment of Iraq's military threat.

On its fourth day of public hearings, the inquiry examined failed efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis through the United Nations.


Sir Jeremy, the UK's permanent representative to the UN between 1997 and 2003, was centre stage in UK-led efforts to negotiate a second UN resolution on Iraq in early 2003, seen by many countries as necessary to directly authorise military action.

But Tony Blair told the House of Commons the French had said they would veto a second resolution and it never went to a Security Council vote.

It is also known that other security council members would not back the resolution, leading critics to claim the subsequent invasion was illegal.

If you do something internationally that the majority of UN member states think is wrong, illegitimate or politically unjustifiable, you are taking a risk in my view
Sir Jeremy Greenstock

Sir Jeremy said he believed existing UN resolutions provided "sufficient legal cover" for future action but only if Iraq was found to be in material breach of its disarmament obligations.

Asked about the legality of the war, he said there were different opinions and that a "final and conclusive" verdict was never likely to be made.

But he added: "If you do something internationally that the majority of UN member states think is wrong, illegitimate or politically unjustifiable, you are taking a risk in my view."

"I regarded our participation in the military action against Iraq in March 2003 as legal but of questionable legitimacy in that it did not have the democratically observable backing of a great majority of member states or even perhaps of a majority of people inside the UK.

"There was a failure to establish legitimacy although I think we successfully established legality in the the degree, at least, that we were never challenged in the UN or International Court of Justice for those actions."

'Grounds for war'

Sir Jeremy also said he believed war may "possibly" have been averted if the weapons inspectors had been given more time in early 2003.

November-December: Former top civil servants, spy chiefs, diplomats and military commanders to give evidence
January-February 2010: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and other politicians expected to appear before the panel
March 2010: Inquiry expected to adjourn ahead of the general election campaign
July-August 2010: Inquiry expected to resume
Report set to be published in late 2010 or early 2011

However, he said he still felt that Iraq had been concealing some illegal materials or programmes: "I still believe there is something there but it is a question of what that something is."

Sir Jeremy said Iraq's representative at the UN told him in September 2002 that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) but the UK government was not in a position to ascertain whether this was true.

He said UK policy was driven by the belief that Iraq had WMD and any talk from the US of other motivations for war, such as regime change, were "unhelpful".

Throughout the process the UK government believed dealing with Iraq was in the national interest, he said, but felt this should be done through "collective action" and on the basis of UN authorisation.

UK policy was solely focused on disarming Iraq, Sir Jeremy told the inquiry

He said he did not "recall" being consulted about an alleged change in the UK's approach to Iraq in April 2002, the point when critics of the war say that Mr Blair signed up to military action.

But, by early 2003, it was clear the UK had given a "commitment" that should the US go to war, the UK would fight alongside it.

Second resolution

UN Security Council resolution 1441, agreed in November 2002, gave Saddam Hussein a "final opportunity" to declare his weapons stockpile and co-operate with inspectors or face serious consequences.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, UK Permanent Representative to the UN 1997-2003

Asked about the UK's objective in seeking a further UN resolution, Sir Jeremy said one of the reasons was to try and obtain "the safest possible legal grounds for use of force should that be necessary".

Although the US felt it did not need a further resolution to justify military action it realised that the UK, as its main ally, would benefit from this, explained the former ambassador.

The failure to do this was damaging in terms of public perceptions of the reasons for going to war, he added.

"What we were left with by the failure of diplomacy was the US set of reasons for going to war with Iraq not the British ones."

Reacting to Sir Jeremy's comments, the Lib Dems said he had been put in an "impossible situation" by Tony Blair and the inquiry needed to thoroughly examine questions about the war's legality.

The SNP said the government's case for war was being undermined "with every evidence session".

The government has always insisted it acted in good faith over Iraq on the basis on the intelligence available.

The Iraq inquiry, set up by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in July, is due to report by the end of 2010.

He and Mr Blair are expected to be among future witnesses along with former senior advisers and military figures.

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