Why Elizabeth Wilmshurst is not my hero

Trusting lawyers to decide when wars are illegal also means trusting them to decide when wars are legal. That’s called tyranny.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘My objection is not political – it’s legal.’ So said Juliet Stevenson, playing the dissenting UK Foreign Office lawyer Elizabeth Wilmshurst, in the Iraq War drama 10 Days to War shown on BBC2 in March 2008. In her best-yet Concerned Of Islington acting role, complete with a liberal head-tilt every time she spoke and a tortured look on her face as she contemplated her own moral indefatigability in a warped world, Stevenson captured perfectly the liberal saintliness of Wilmshurst, who has been elevated to unimpeachable hero status for daring to reveal that she was unconvinced by the legality of Tony Blair’s rush to war in 2003.

Remarkably, Wilmshurst’s legalistic rather than political objection to bombing Iraq made her the hero of 10 Days to War, and it is making her the hero again of the UK Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. The real-life Wilmshurst was given a standing ovation when she gave evidence at Chilcot last week, in which she once again revealed her behind-the-scenes doubts about the legality of invading Iraq, and the accolades to her in the press have been almost unreadably gushing: she delivered a ‘scorpion’s sting’ against Blair wrapped up in ‘velvet courage’; she has been Chilcot’s only ‘witness of principle’.

Apparently her legal-not-political opposition to the war marks her out as the heroine of this bloody debacle. It shows that she was a level-headed, clear-eyed defender of legal norms in contrast to Tony Blair the Moral Bombardier. Really? For me, an opponent of the Iraq War from the very beginning, Wilmshurst’s rather self-satisfied, hang-dog complaint that invading Iraq was a bad idea because, you know, it wasn’t legally above board sums up everything that is wrong – if not morally depraved – about today’s dinner-party opposition to the devastation of Iraq.

‘My objection is not political, it’s legal’ – that could be the slogan of today’s cynical anti-war spasm (it would be pushing it to describe it as an anti-war movement), which has jettisoned any discussion of morality, democracy and sovereignty in favour of focusing on the nitty-gritty of international law. There are three irritating things about this strictly legalistic opposition to the attack on Iraq. First, it is delusional. It is based on the massive self-deception that international law and its brave defenders and practitioners – lawyers – kept the world in tip-top shape until that cowboy George W Bush and his heel-snapping poodle Tony Blair came along and ruined everything.

Philippe Sands, one of the key ‘legal critics’ of the bombing of Iraq, is a QC and author of Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules. He argues: ‘In August 1941, at a meeting off the coast of Newfoundland, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed they were going to put in place a new world order, a world order based on rules [the UN Charter]…. Fast forward 60 years, and the [Bush] administration that now holds office sees these rules, which for several administrations were seen as promoting American opportunities, as imposing constraints.’

The historical illiteracy in that statement is mind-blowing. By ‘fast forwarding’ 60 years, from the founding of the UN Charter to the Bush-led bombing of Iraq, Sands overlooks the fact that during the Cold War era of 1945 to 1989, Western powers launched numerous wars of aggression against their supposed legal equals, including Aden, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama. And after the Cold War, in the era of ‘humanitarian intervention’, Western forces invaded or bombed Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. None of those wars was in any serious way ‘legal’. There was never a time in postwar history when Sands and Co.’s precious ‘global rules’ kept barbarism at bay and the world in order. The lunatic leap from the UN Charter to the invasion of Iraq is an attempt to create a neat historical morality tale, in which high-minded lawyers can pose as the heirs of the Charter and the brave defenders of international stability against Blair and Bush’s uniquely cowboyish disregard for legal procedures.

The second irritating thing about the legalistic opposition to the war in Iraq is that it is deeply dishonest, duplicitous even. Many of those who moan about the illegality of Iraq were fervent supporters of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Yet that futile and fatal intervention also did not win the support of the UN Security Council, and thus was ‘illegal’. A Guardian writer penned the 10 Days to War drama, and the Guardian has been singing the praises of Wilmshurst’s performance at Chilcot over the past week. This is the same Guardian which in 1999 slated those who said Bill Clinton and Tony Blair should wait for UN backing before bombing Yugoslavia. The UN is not ‘the only legitimate law-giver’, the Guardian insisted. Indeed, the UN constitution is a ‘recipe for inaction’, and ‘its imprimatur cannot be the sole trigger for international action to right an obvious wrong’.

The third and most irritating thing is that the legalistic-not-political critique of war (well, of certain wars) is inhumane. Judgements about military interventions are made, not from the basis of what is good for humanity, or from any analysis of what terrible consequences the war might have for those on the receiving end and for international peace more broadly, but rather from the lawyerly approach of making sure that all the boxes are ticked and all the right procedures were followed. Legal niceties are elevated over people’s lives, over questions of democracy, sovereignty, stability, equality.

Indeed, if Iraq could have suffered a worse fate than Bush and Blair’s ‘illegal war’, it would have been at the hands of Wilmshurst and Co.’s desired ‘legal war’. It is reported that Wilmshurst tried to make the invasion of Iraq legal by pushing for new UN resolutions and attempting to shore up the support of the French and others. For the 2003 invasion of Iraq to have been legal, it would have required even more intense international condemnation of Iraq, even more states lined up against the collapsing Ba’athist regime and the beleaguered Iraqi people, even more of a consensus that Iraq needed a short, sharp shock of bombs followed by a military occupation. A legal war would have been even more devastating than the ‘illegal war’ has been.

The beatification of St Elizabeth of Wilmshurst is based on the repudiation of politics. At a time when expertise is trumping political debate, when lone legally- or scientifically-minded know-it-alls are elevated over grubby politicians and the madding crowd as ‘voices of reason’, it seems even opposition to war has become the preserve of lawyerly types. What some people really like about Wilmshurst is the idea that she, possessed of a superhuman, dignified legalism, stands in contrast to apparently dirty everyday politics (as personified by Blair). In place of a profound political debate about the rights and wrongs of Iraq, we get the blind idolisation of behind-the-scenes individuals who tried to use the law to derail the politicians. There is something deeply undemocratic, even tyrannical, in this worship of brave lawyers. I mean, what if Wilmshurst, in her apparently infinite wisdom, had decided that the attack on Iraq was legal? The flipside of endowing government lawyers with the right to pronounce that wars are illegal is handing them the authority to say when they are legal, too.

My objection to the war in Iraq was political not legal. Questions of legality should not even come into it. The invasion of Iraq was immoral, inhumane and destructive – which means that even if, in legal terms, it had been right, it would still have been wrong.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. An edited version of this article was first published on spiked in March 2008. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said the coalition’s war exposed a hole at the heart of the West, and left a hole in the heart of Iraq. Philip Hammond spoke of the need for a political critique of interventionism. Mick Hume wondered why the shock and awe over Iraq came so late. He also asked which fool really believed that the Iraq war was about WMD? James Heartfield said the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. And Jennie Bristow looked at the contemporary celebration of whistleblowers. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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