Wednesday 30 July 2003

Blair's lack of courage

If Britain had held out for UN control of Iraq, we wouldn't be bogged down in a bloody occupation

by Clare Short

It is right that we should continue to argue over the route to war in Iraq. But it is more urgent that we address the continuing chaos, suffering and loss of life. The British military was very clear that the conflict would take no more than a few weeks. In my briefings, they talked of the need to prepare for very rapid success. And - despite claims to the contrary - the UN was well prepared to return to Iraq as soon as order was restored to take charge of emergency humanitarian needs.

The advice that I, and the Department for International Development, gave to the prime minister was that we should internationalise the reconstruction effort as quickly as possible. This was based on our experience in East Timor, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and also on our understanding of international law. I was delighted when the attorney general provided clear legal advice on the limitation of the authority of occupying powers, which strongly reinforced the case we were making.

The legal position is laid down in the Geneva convention and Hague regulations. They provide that occupying powers have a duty to keep order, keep civil administration functioning and provide for immediate humanitarian need. They have no powers to engage in major political, economic or constitutional reform. They also have no power to bring into being a sovereign government since they hold no sovereignty. Only the UN can do that. The attorney's advice concluded: "The lawfulness of any occupation after conflict has ended is still governed by the legal basis for the use of force... namely, Iraqi disarmament... the longer the occupation of Iraq continues, and the more the tasks undertaken by an interim administration depart from the main objective, the more difficult it will be to justify the lawfulness of the occupation."

Thus it was clear the right way forward was that the coalition focus on keeping order and that the UN humanitarian system restore food supplies, water and electricity. The security council needed to lift sanctions and appoint a special representative to establish an interim government and a route to elections, as had been done in Afghanistan. This would enable the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and IMF to provide support for the interim government's economic reform programme. And it would ensure that all contracts were let transparently.

When the prime minister pressed me to remain a member of the government, he promised that the UN would be given the central role in reconstruction. I was much criticised for staying, but decided that although the war was unstoppable it was possible to organise a proper international effort to rebuild Iraq.

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