Hans Blix at the Iraq inquiry

UN weapons inspector makes clear that 2003 invasion took place despite lack of evidence and increase

The Iraq war was "illegal" and the idea that military action merely upheld UN Security Council resolutions was "absurd", the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix told the Chilcot inquiry yesterday afternoon.

Asked what he thought would have happened, had the March 2003 invasion not taken place, Blix said he would have completed the inspections and introduced proper monitoring of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities. When pressed, he said that although he thought a diplomatic route could have been backed up by military threat, he doubted it would have involved the deployment of 250,000 men, and said the military pressure could have ensured that the inspections procedure was completed.

His own position on whether Iraq possessed WMDs at the time is rather more complex than is often thought: at the time of the "dodgy dossier" in September 2002, he said he personally expected the presence of weapons, but could not say so in his official capacity as an evidence-gatherer for the UN. He did also say at the time that he thought the dossier "plausible".

However, he changed his view in early 2003 when a scathing report produced greater Iraqi co-operation, with offers to excavate materials from the 1991 war and people involved in armament at that time offering to travel abroad for interviews. Blix says he communicated the change in his opinions to Tony Blair. He also insisted that his team was never denied access to sites, and that it was "not really" greeted by resistance or violence. If this had been the case, he said, he would have complained to the Security Council.

Despite this trend of increased co-operation throughtout the early part of 2003, Blix said he felt he could date the change in British attitude to 10 March 2003, shortly after he submitted a "working document" to the UN that Jack Straw described as "sensational", even though Blix himself felt that it provided very little new information.

Blix maintained that reports that Blair tried to get him to change his mind on the presence of WMDs in order to placate the US were false.

He felt that once his team began reporting back that no evidence had been found at any sites, the US and UK should have changed their policy -- that, he feels, is the main lesson that should be drawn from the situation. His only regret, he says, is the "harsh tones" he used in the January document, which consituted a warning to Iraq to improve co-operation, which it then did.

The issue of co-operation was the real revelation from Blix's evidence yesterday. He made it clear that the US and UK were moving towards military options despite an increased level of co-operation from the Iraqis and a lack of evidence found by the inspectors.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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We still have time to change our minds on Brexit

The British people will soon find they have been misled. 

On the radio on 29 March 2017, another "independence day" for rejoicing Brexiteers, former SNP leader Alex Salmond and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage battled hard over the ramifications of Brexit. Here are two people who could be responsible for the break-up of the United Kingdom. Farage said it was a day we were getting our country back.

Yet let alone getting our country back, we could be losing our country. And what is so frustrating is that not only have we always had our country by being part of the European Union, but we have had the best of both worlds.

It is Philip Hammond who said: “We cannot cherry pick, we cannot have our cake and eat it too”. The irony is that we have had our cake and eaten it, too.

We are not in Schengen, we are not in the euro and we make the laws that affect our daily lives in Westminster – not in Europe – be it our taxes, be it our planning laws, be it business rates, be it tax credits, be it benefits or welfare, be it healthcare. We measure our roads in miles because we choose to and we pour our beer in pints because we choose to. We have not been part of any move towards further integration and an EU super-state, let alone the EU army.

Since the formation of the EU, Britain has had the highest cumulative GDP growth of any country in the EU – 62 per cent, compared with Germany at 35 per cent. We have done well out of being part of the EU. What we have embarked on in the form of Brexit is utter folly.

The triggering of Article 50 now is a self-imposed deadline by the Prime Minister for purely political reasons. She wants to fix the two-year process to end by March 2019 well in time to go into the election in 2020, with the negotiations completed.

There is nothing more or less to this timing. People need to wake up to this. Why else would she trigger Article 50 before the French and German elections, when we know Europe’s attention will be elsewhere?

We are going to waste six months of those two years, all because Prime Minister Theresa May hopes the negotiations are complete before her term comes to an end. I can guarantee that the British people will soon become aware of this plot. The Emperor has no clothes.

Reading through the letter that has been delivered to the EU and listening to the Prime Minister’s statement in Parliament today amounted to reading and listening to pure platitudes and, quite frankly, hot air. It recalls the meaningless phrase, "Brexit means Brexit".

What the letter and the statement very clearly outlined is how complex the negotiations are going to be over the next two years. In fact, they admit that it is unlikely that they are going to be able to conclude negotiations within the two-year period set aside.

That is not the only way in which the British people have been misled. The Conservative party manifesto clearly stated that staying in the single market was a priority. Now the Prime Minister has very clearly stated in her Lancaster House speech, and in Parliament on 29 March that we are not going to be staying in the single market.

Had the British people been told this by the Leave campaign, I can guarantee many people would not have voted to leave.

Had British businesses been consulted, British businesses unanimously – small, medium and large – would have said they appreciate and benefit from the single market, the free movement of goods and services, the movement of people, the three million people from the EU that work in the UK, who we need. We have an unemployment rate of under 5 per cent – what would we do without these 3m people?

Furthermore, this country is one of the leaders in the world in financial services, which benefits from being able to operate freely in the European Union and our businesses benefit from that as a result. We benefit from exporting, tariff-free, to every EU country. That is now in jeopardy as well.

The Prime Minister’s letter to the EU talks with bravado about our demands for a fair negotiation, when we in Britain are in the very weakest position to negotiate. We are just one country up against 27 countries, the European Commission and the European Council and the European Parliament. India, the US and the rest of the world do not want us to leave the European Union.

The Prime Minister’s letter of notice already talks of transitional deals beyond the two years. No country, no business and no economy likes uncertainty for such a prolonged period. This letter not just prolongs but accentuates the uncertainty that the UK is going to face in the coming years.

Britain is one of the three largest recipients of inward investment in the world and our economy depends on inward investment. Since the referendum, the pound has fallen 20 per cent. That is a clear signal from the world, saying, "We do not like this uncertainty and we do not like Brexit."

Though the Prime Minister said there is it no turning back, if we come to our senses we will not leave the EU. Article 50 is revocable. At any time from today we can decide we want to stay on.

That is for the benefit of the British economy, for keeping the United Kingdom "United", and for Europe as a whole – let alone the global economy.

Lord Bilimoria is the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and the founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council.