Elizabeth Wilmshurst gave a great deal of evidence at the Chilcot Inquiry this afternoon, but none at all that she could ever, ever be a pushover. Never in the field of legal conflict have so many words been slotted with such clinical precision between the lines.
Only once did Ms Wilmshurst’s testimony betray the hidden fury, when a panellist put it to her that Jack Straw is ‘himself an accomplished lawyer’.
“Yes, but not an international lawyer” she almost spat back. The audience giggled nervously.’And a completely amoral snake’ said her eyes.
Unlike Sir Michael Wood, who in the morning session offered polite reservations here and there about his advice being serially ignored, Wilmshurst provided a proper context for the Blair Government’s behaviour.
All the FCO lawyers were of one view, she began: the war was illegal. Yes,it was highly unusual for a Foreign Secretary to counter such unanimous advice. Yes, international law (as Jack Straw weakly contended) was more vague – but the lack of Courts made caution all the more vital. No, just because the Saddam Hussein’s weren’t obeying the UN, two wrongs didn’t make a right. Yes, Iran experts in the FCO all regarded invasion as the ‘nightmare scenario’. No, she insisted, there was no difference between legality and legitimacy in international law. Yes, the Government’s actions undermined the UN and damaged our reputation as upholders of the Rule of Law. Yes, the Attorney General was a spineless jellyfish who had caved in, changed his advice – and then tried to argue from an untenable position. Yes, troops have a right to expect that they are killing people legally.
Finally (she concluded) the process used to arrive at a policy on Iraq was ‘lamentable and secretive’. The Attorney General’s ultimate advice was sought, literally, within hours of the invasion beginning. ‘What a bunch of cowboys’ was the phrase wandering through every mind in the place.
As I expected, Elizabeth Wilmshurst has put the Chilcot panel on the spot: later in the week, they must interview this very same Attorney General. He clearly failed in his duty as the Chief Law Officer – why? He changed his mind – why? He arrived at an untenable, flawed piece of advice – why?
Next Friday, the Inquiry interviews the slippery Teflon man who has all the answers to these questions. If he is seen to evade their questions, then it too will be in dereliction of its duty.
Perhaps more pertinently, there is now (and was always going to be)a powerful case for re-interviewing at least one witness. As I suggested yesterday, at least one member of the panel is already minded so to do. And I hear further rumours to the effect that at least one of those witnesses is looking forward to it.
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