Iraq: Legality of Armed Force

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:07 pm on 17th March 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour 7:07 pm, 17th March 2003

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for introducing this debate on the UK's obligations under international law concerning the use of armed force. Speaking as a non lawyer, I have been greatly perturbed in recent months by the outpouring of statements and opinions by many lawyers on this subject with specific reference to Iraq.

I should have liked to deal with this in my speech in the debate on the 26th February, but there was insufficient time and I could only say then:

"Although I am not a lawyer, I really have problems understanding how anyone can raise fears about international law being breached by military action against Iraq. Chapter 7 specifically allows the use of force and Saddam has failed to comply with 23 separate obligations under a series of resolutions under Chapter 7".—[Official Report, 26/2/03; cols. 263-264.]

I wanted to go on to spell this out in more detail, which thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I can now do, and also to express my dismay at the way in which the words "international law", "legal" and "illegal" were being bandied around as cover for opinions, which in my opinion were in fact political and personal.

I should say here that looking round the Chamber I see many members of the legal profession, and what I have to say will not be music to their ears. I should at the beginning enter a caveat that, of course I am not speaking of all lawyers and, of course on Iraq, as other issues, lawyers hold very different views and have spoken on different sides of practically every aspect of the situation.

Of course also I have no problem with those who have political and personal objections to military action against Iraq and I understand very well those who have political and moral problems with that, but I do take issue with international lawyers who invoke legality when that is not justified, and is not in truth what they are really talking about.

If anyone reads Resolution 687 of April 1991, they will see that it is a very long resolution of some 34 operational paragraphs and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has dealt with quite a lot of it. I know it well having, as I have told the House before, spent the last 12 months of my government service, up to the end of July 1991, totally immersed in the Gulf crisis and war. One can see that 687 is very specific in the obligations it laid on Iraq and the time-scale for compliance by Iraq—for example, in the case of a declaration of locations, amounts and types of all items specified in a paragraph which was a detailed list concerning chemical and biological weapons—was 15 days. It was, like all the 17 resolutions on Iraq over 13 years, passed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, and it ended with the crucial words, which I did not hear the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, quote,

"decides . . . to take such further steps as may be required for the implementation of the present resolution".

Resolution 687 was, of course, the conditions for the ceasefire in the military action authorised in 678 of November 1990.

The Security Council has authorised the use of force, as it is entitled to, under Article 42 of Chapter 7 by means of various wordings—in 1950 on Korea; in 1990, 1992 and 1994 on Kuwait, Somalia and Haiti; in 1993 for UNPROFOR; in 1997 for Albania; and in 1999 for East Timor. I shall not quote all the words because of the time constraint, but my point is that if you look at them all there is no one formula—which is a point some international lawyers seem confused about, to say the least.

There is no question that the use of force was authorised in 678 in 1990 and the subsequent Chapter 7 resolutions on Iraq, up to and including 1441, were all trying to achieve compliance with Resolution 687, which was the ceasefire. That is my reading of the situation as someone who is not a lawyer, but I am pleased that as far as I can see from the Answer of my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General to my Question for Written Answer today, I have been thinking along the right lines.

The reason I have laid this out in some detail is because I have been bewildered to read and to hear some of the so-called legal points advanced by international lawyers attacking the legality of military action against Saddam Hussein. The argument that 687 was in 1991 some 12 years ago and therefore this somehow affects is legality really does not stand up. There is no statute of limitations on Chapter 7 resolutions. Fifteen days was a deadline for Saddam to comply, not for action to be taken against him.

The length of time, 12 years, is a political reason why it was important to have 1441 as a final opportunity for compliance, but surely never a legal one. Yet a much quoted letter in the Guardian of 7th November, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, signed by some 15 teachers of international law, deals only with 1441, as if it stood alone, with no hinterland of the 16 previous resolutions. The letter declares,

"before military action can be lawfully undertaken against Iraq a Security Council must have indicated its clearly expressed assent. It has not yet done so".

But I am sorry, yes it has, and it is surely peculiar that international law teachers should be so simplistic and ignore the context and history of 1441. They give no indication at all that there could be a doubt about their way of reasoning. I recognise that people have their own agenda and positions on controversial issues, but I expect them to have the intellectual honesty not to use the cloak of academic cover to claim to my mind a very doubtful objectivity.

When I was an undergraduate, I was told by an eminent professor of law that there was no such thing as international law. I certainly do not want to accept that, having been a fervent supporter of the UN since my school days, and I am an enthusiast for the International Criminal Court