Top judge: US and UK Acted as 'Vigilantes' in Iraq Invasion

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The Guardian/UK

Top judge: US and UK Acted as 'Vigilantes' in Iraq Invasion

Former senior law lord condemns 'serious violation of international law'

by
Richard Norton-Taylor

A British soldier patrols the northern suburbs of the southern Iraqi city of Basra. One of Britain's most authoritative judicial figures last night delivered a blistering attack on the invasion of Iraq, describing it as a serious violation of international law, and accusing Britain and the US of acting like a "world vigilante". (Photograph: Dave Clark/AFP/Getty images)

One of Britain's most authoritative judicial figures last night delivered a blistering attack on the invasion of Iraq, describing it as a serious violation of international law, and accusing Britain and the US of acting like a "world vigilante".

Lord
Bingham, in his first major speech since retiring as the senior law
lord, rejected the then attorney general's defence of the 2003 invasion
as fundamentally flawed.

Contradicting head-on Lord Goldsmith's
advice that the invasion was lawful, Bingham stated: "It was not plain
that Iraq had failed to comply in a manner justifying resort to force
and there were no strong factual grounds or hard evidence to show that
it had." Adding his weight to the body of international legal opinion
opposed to the invasion, Bingham said that to argue, as the British
government had done, that Britain and the US could unilaterally decide
that Iraq had broken UN resolutions "passes belief".

Governments
were bound by international law as much as by their domestic laws, he
said. "The current ministerial code," he added "binding on British
ministers, requires them as an overarching duty to 'comply with the
law, including international law and treaty obligations'."

The
Conservatives and Liberal Democrats continue to press for an
independent inquiry into the circumstances around the invasion. The
government says an inquiry would be harmful while British troops are in
Iraq. Ministers say most of the remaining 4,000 will leave by mid-2009.

Addressing the British Institute of International and Comparative Law last night, Bingham said: "If I am right that the invasion of Iraq by the US, the UK, and some other states was unauthorised by the security council there was, of course, a serious violation of international law and the rule of law.

"For
the effect of acting unilaterally was to undermine the foundation on
which the post-1945 consensus had been constructed: the prohibition of
force (save in self-defence, or perhaps, to avert an impending
humanitarian catastrophe) unless formally authorised by the nations of
the world empowered to make collective decisions in the security
council ..."

The moment a state treated the rules of
international law as binding on others but not on itself, the compact
on which the law rested was broken, Bingham argued. Quoting a comment
made by a leading academic lawyer, he added: "It is, as has been said,
'the difference between the role of world policeman and world
vigilante'."

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

Bingham said he had very recently provided an
advance copy of his speech to Goldsmith and to Jack Straw, foreign
secretary at the time of the invasion of Iraq. He told his audience he
should make it plain they challenged his conclusions.

Both men
emphasised that point last night by intervening to defend their views
as consistent with those held at the time of the invasion. Goldsmith
said in a statement: "I stand by my advice of March 2003 that it was
legal for Britain to take military action in Iraq. I would not have
given that advice if it were not genuinely my view. Lord Bingham is
entitled to his own legal perspective five years after the event."
Goldsmith defended what is known as the "revival argument" - namely
that Saddam Hussein had failed to comply with previous UN resolutions
which could now take effect. Goldsmith added that Tony Blair had told
him it was his "unequivocal view" that Iraq was in breach of its UN
obligations to give up weapons of mass destruction.

Straw said
last night that he shared Goldsmith's view. He continued: "However
controversial the view that military action was justified in
international law it was our attorney general's view that it was lawful
and that view was widely shared across the world."

Bingham also
criticised the post-invasion record of Britain as "an occupying power
in Iraq". It is "sullied by a number of incidents, most notably the
shameful beating to death of Mr Baha Mousa [a hotel receptionist] in
Basra [in 2003]", he said.

Such breaches of the law, however,
were not the result of deliberate government policy and the rights of
victims had been recognised, Bingham observed.

He contrasted
that with the "unilateral decisions of the US government" on issues
such as the detention conditions in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

After
referring to mistreatment of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib, Bingham
added: "Particularly disturbing to proponents of the rule of law is the
cynical lack of concern for international legality among some top
officials in the Bush administration."

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