The Chilcot Inquiry and Human Rights

By Rhys Edwards

This blog focuses on former Labour MP Ann Clwyd and her emphasis on human rights as a motivation in Labour’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. It examines first, her efforts to prosecute Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain and other members of the Iraqi administration under international law, secondly, her decision to support the invasion of Iraq, and, thirdly, her testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry. Looking back at the 2003 invasion and the subsequent Chilcot Inquiry, how can we think critically about the British government’s interpretation(s) of human rights before the war in Iraq? Can the evidence compiled by the Chilcot Inquiry provide clarity for why human rights were so integral to Labour’s ‘marketing’ of the invasion to the British electorate?

Ann Clwyd was the MP for Cynon Valley representing the Labour Party. Since the 1980s, Clwyd advocated against human rights abuses in Iraq, condemning the Iraqi government and its President, Saddam Hussain. In 1984 Clwyd became chair of the Committee Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq (CARDRI), as well as representing INDICT in the late 90s – an organisation geared towards ensuring the indictment of Saddam and the Iraqi government in an International Criminal Tribunal. In 2003, when INDICT’s proposal for an international criminal tribunal failed, Clwyd chose to support Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plans for intervention as the most likely way to impose regime change in Iraq. She later became the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to Iraq on Human Rights. She recalled her decision-making process during her testimony in 2010 for the Chilcot Inquiry (published in 2016) and reaffirmed her endorsement of the invasion.  

As part of her involvement in the Chilcot Inquiry, Clwyd submitted a report titled ‘The work of INDICT’, and cited two humanitarian crises – those of Yugoslavia and Rwanda – as templates for an International Criminal Tribunal against the Iraqi administration. Both conflicts resulted in the creation of the ICTY and the ICTR once regime changes were undertaken. However, scholars on these international tribunals have challenged the idea that these processes were ‘impartial’ or, indeed, benefitial for post-conflict societies and traumatised populations. Both conflicts were clouded by the same ‘Victors’ Justice’ that had underpinned the Nuremberg Trials in the aftermath of the Second World War. In Rwanda, many of the ICTR’s decisions were met with a series of retributive violence and some have argued that these processes reinforced ethnic divisions between the two main ethnic groups (imposing a binary of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’). As for Yugoslavia, the success of the ICTY has been troubled by persistent ethnic, religious, and nationalist tensions in the region. The International Criminal Court in The Hague, has similarly faced criticisms for its approach to international justice and intra-state violence. In the case of Iraq: can we even begin to speculate as to whether a tribunal would have seen more success if the judicial processes are so controversial? 

The temptation of answering this impossible question is an undercurrent in Clwyd’s testimony. As a supporter of the international criminial justice system, much of Clwyd’s justification for supporting the invasion in 2003 was driven by her liberal ideals and carceral politics. Also, by focusing on this hypothetical (the creation of an Iraq Tribunal), it contributes to the idea that the difficult legacies of the Yugoslavian and Rwandan Tribunals are problems of the past, rather than persistent problems, in-built in the international tribunal approach. Thus accusations of contemporary criticism as a product of hindsight and with proper contextualisation, fail to embrace the critical scholarship on intenational criminal justice its effects on regional conflict and ethnic violence.  

Clwyd’s commitment to the idea of an Iraq Tribunal relied on two assumptions which can be traced back to legacies of British imperialism. First, Clwyd builds upon a well-entrenched, British self-image of the nation as an authority on matters such as truth and justice. British colonialism was justified for centuries for its contribution of law and order across its dominions, concealing the racist, uneven application of its administrations’ policing and judicial services. The indictment of Saddam and the Iraqi officials hinged on the assumption that international courts of justice – such as those in Yugoslavia and Rwanda – were effective avenues to bestowing some sort of justice, or revealing some type of ‘truth’. They also served a punitive function. As highlighted by the Inquiry, British officials saw the Tribunal as the appropriate approach for restabilising Iraq and re-exerting control over the region. Clwyd and Blair, among other Labour politicians, saw Britain – as well as Western liberal internationalism in general – as the authority on the management of law and order, be that in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or Iraq. This self-imagined authority – captured by testimonies during the Chilcot Inquiry – seems naïve when considering how plans for the Tribunal failed due to insufficient evidence, but it was engrained in imperial entitlement and underpinned by liberal ideals, such as human rights. Clwyd, as well as other British officials, continued to support the invasion of Iraq despite the fact that sufficient evidence for the Tribunal had not been provided.  

The second assumption was that historical context was only useful if it supported regime change. International tribunals – as a method for the ceasing of contemporary crises – encourages officials to ‘(re)solve’ a crisis on a case-by-case basis, thus individualising the crime and siloing an event or small group of events. This causes a process of decontextualisation – as was the case with Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Crises are divorced from their historical contexts and the foundations of national division are separated from their imperial past, so as to appear natural. This anachronistic approach is stark in Clwyd’s testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, in which she does not acknowledge the history of British involvement in Iraq, nor its occupation of the Mesopotamia region during the First World War. For example, in her testimony Clwyd cited the 1980s Iran/Iraq War as a precursor to the human rights violations of the Iraqi government, specifying the use of chemical weapons both during and after the conflict. However, her testimony neglects to mention the British trade of chemical weapons to Saddam’s government during the Iran/Iraq War, as was revealed in the Arms-to-Iraq inquiry. Also absent from Clwyd’s testimony was an acknowledgement of British uses of chemical weapons during the Iraq War itself.  

Clwyd’s testimony also describes how the Iraqi government’s human rights abuses were geared towards the Kurdish Minority in northern Iraq. However, missing from her testimony is an acknowledgement of Britain’s role – 80 years prior – to divide the Middle East and deny Kurdish citizens an independent state and thus the international protections of citizenship.  

The Chilcot Inquiry highlights how British officials disassociated the late 20th century Iraqi humanitarian crisis from the larger historical context of British interference in the region. The Inquiry therefore provides insight into the legacies of colonialism within British attitudes towards the Iraq War – challenging the concept of a global, liberal Britain that is no longer associated with its imperial past. Clwyd, as well as countless other British politicial officials, exercised authority over Iraq without considering how Britain’s authority in the region was constructed in the first place.  

The Chilcot Inquiry, as a historical source in its own right, is valuable in capturing elite British beliefs about human rights, humanitarianism, justice, and internationalism, and framing them as part of a uniquely nationalist imaginary. We must critically engage with these liberal ideas of human rights as a particularly ‘British’ value and contextualise the harm of interference and colonial continuties in 21st century society.