A timely warning from Cherie

Observations on the British in Iraq (2)

If Tony Blair had read a penetrating lecture by the distinguished human rights lawyer Cherie Booth, QC, in November last year, he would surely not be committing British forces to fight under American control in Iraq.

The lecture was an indictment of President Bush's decision to remove the United States from the treaty, to date signed by 139 countries including Britain, which established an International Criminal Court. The court would have concerned itself with what US forces did in Abu Ghraib Prison, or Guantanamo Bay. Bush argued that it would make US soldiers subject to an "unaccountable prosecutor and its unchecked judicial power".

Booth described the ICC, with its "independent prosecutors putting tyrants and torturers in the dock before independent judges", as "a shining example of how human rights might be realised under international law". She added: "It seems inconceivable that a state committed to the rule of law, such as the US, would refuse to investigate and prosecute its nationals should there be reliable evidence that they had been involved in international crimes." Inconceivable it may be, but it is far from clear that everybody involved in the Abu Ghraib tortures, to say nothing of Guantanamo, has been held to account.

Booth will have understood better than almost anyone the implications of placing British forces under US command. If they receive orders from the Americans that contravene international law - as they may well do, because the US government believes in the pax Americana, not in inter-national law - then they can be hauled before the international court, which Britain supports, and can be punished. Yet the American commanders who gave the orders would be protected.

In the past 18 months or so, the Foreign Office has made several attempts to stop Booth (aka Mrs Blair) from speaking out on matters that concern her. It successfully stopped her addressing a meeting this year for Human Rights Watch, which had been too outspoken on the behaviour of the Americans in Iraq for the British government's comfort. But the November speech went ahead and was delivered, at Georgetown University in Washington, on the eve of Bush's visit to Britain.

Booth is an internationalist. She was, right from the start, unhappy at her husband's closeness to Bush, but she was warned against putting pressure on Blair by the then British ambassador in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer. It is widely believed that she was unhappy about the Iraq war, but has loyally refused to admit as much in public. In recent years she has started to rebel against the tight, new-Labour control that Downing Street tries to exercise over her.

She is unlikely to press her rebellion so far as to draw attention now to the implications of her husband's decision to place British forces in such an unfair position. However, the implications of her speech are clear. And if the PM will not listen to his back-bench MPs or to Labour supporters in the country or to his wife, who happens also to be one of the country's top human rights lawyers, will he listen to anybody?

The Blairs and Their Court by Francis Beckett and David Hencke is published by Aurum Press (£18.99)