Under article 2(4) of the UN Charter, states have to refrain from the use of force against other territorial states unless one of three qualifications has been met. In the case of state consent, self defense or approval by the UN Security Council, forceful actions can be taken legally by states. The recently published Chilcot report cast new light on the legality of the UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, allowing for new debate on the contraposition between the morality and the legality of forceful interventions.
Since the NATO intervention in Kosovo, international lawyers have had to deal with a new question: can an intervention be illegal but justified? In the case of Iraq, the UNSC resolution 1441 did not automatically allow the use of force. The intervention was justified on the basis of a report on the existence and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which had been previously banned through UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq. However, the Chilcot report highlighted how the majority of the Security Council was “not persuaded that the inspection process had reached the end of the road”. Additionally, it reported clearly that intelligence had not been established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons persisted.
The Chilcot inquiry stated that the “choice to intervene was made before exploring peaceful option, and military action was not of last resort”. Overall, it is clear that according to the UN Charter, the British intervention in Iraq was illegal, but was it morally justified? Such question cannot be answered simply in legal terms, but involves broader consideration of policy and decision making. Despite this, too much focus is usually posed on the “crisis idea”, concentrating on the moment when intervention is necessary rather than the run up to it. Different decisions could have been made before 2003 by the international community to peacefully resolve the situation in Iraq. The current pattern of humanitarian intervention by external powers is configuring more and more to a strategy of regime change. This brings back questions of imperialism and neocolonialism which fuel unilateral action by Western powers.
Beginning an invasion based on mistaken information and with no post-invasion plan, the UK initiated a conflict whose effects are still strongly perceived in the region. Unilateral action of this type not only threatens the authority and stability of the Security Council, but it also opens the door to a world in which the West has the ultimate decision on the legitimacy of foreign regimes and governments. While, as the Chilcot inquiry underlined, only an international tribunal will be in the position to fully assess the legality of the Iraq war, its analysis brings back old ghosts and future fears.