UCL News


Philippe Sands: Weapon of mass instruction

14 February 2006

When at last the definitive history of the war against Iraq comes to be written, some readers may be surprised to learn that it was a lawyer who most dented the prime minister's credibility.

The 'Today' programme may have scored a few glancing blows, and Labour backbenchers and the anti-war movement may have landed the odd punch, but it was Philippe Sands, UCL Professor of Law, who stuck the knife into the heart of Tony Blair's claims for the legality of the war in his book, 'Lawless World'. The first edition exposed the attorney-general's crucial change of legal opinion. The paperback, published last week, twisted the blade still further by revealing the Blair-Bush memo of January 31 2003, committing both countries to a war starting on March 10 regardless of any diplomatic outcome. …

While it may have taken the forensic mind of a lawyer to pick his way through the spin and know exactly what to look for, Sands still needed help to find exactly where the bodies were buried. "Once they knew I was looking into the legality of the war," he says, "some very unlikely people, at the very highest levels of both the UK and US political elite, came forward with information. I think they trusted a member of the English bar to treat what they said fairly and confidentially." …

"We know that the diplomatic strategy always came second to the military planning - even when Blair and Bush had no hard evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction - and that Blair chose to ignore the advice of those who warned him there would be internecine warfare if there was no strategy lined up for a replacement regime once Saddam Hussein had been toppled."

"The war was policy-making on the hoof," says Sands. "Others who know the prime minister well have shared with me that he has a limited sense of history and poor attention to detail. He and Bush do not come across as international statesmen. Rather, they appear as teenagers, caught up in a childlike excitement about being at the centre of power. Blair might need to be careful where he travels when he steps down as prime minister. After the Pinochet precedent, he might face prosecution in some countries for waging an illegal war." …

Sands's opposition to Blair is not personal. If anything, he finds it a little embarrassing since, in his other role as a practising QC, he shares a chambers with Cherie Booth. Nor is it based on some wishy-washy pacifism - he backed the prime minister's military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Rather it comes from a professional contempt for someone who has chosen to ignore the rule of law. …

"I'm not starry-eyed about international law: I know that what was appropriate in the 1940s isn't necessarily so now, and that the system needs to evolve. But there are signs that countries such as Brazil, China and India are having the courage to say they want to change the rules of engagement over world trade and agriculture - and that the west is having to listen. The bottom line is that not even the US can stick two fingers up to the global rules and get away with it." …

He now spends half his time teaching graduates at UCL and the other half practising as a barrister.

"I've had a good run lately," he smiles. "Last year, I won a landmark ruling in the Lords, while acting for the Belmarsh detainees on the inadmissability of evidence obtained under torture and I recently got a better than expected judgment for the Democratic Republic of Congo in a boundary dispute with Uganda.

"But, as I always remind my students, you have to be aware that things can go belly-up at any time. The law is a lottery, and verdicts can depend on which judges are presiding in a case and how they are feeling. Yet it's still worth it. It might seem absurd and expensive for two countries to spend months in court over a land dispute, but it's far better than going to war."

John Crace, 'The Guardian', 14 February 2006