International Law Britain and the Iraq War
Bill Bowring
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0238


The invasion of Iraq commenced on 18 March 2003, with the bombing of Iraqi targets by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Poland, Spain, Italy, and Denmark. However, this bibliography covers the period from the summer of 2001 to July 2016, when the report of the UK’s Iran Inquiry (the Chilcot Report) was finally published, and also presents some more recent scholarly reflections. The Chilcot Report itself considered the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, when UK forces left southern Iraq. This bibliography therefore starts with the Chilcot Report, with key references, and some scholarly reflections on its significance. As will be explained, the report is a treasure trove of documents and analysis, and it turned out to be much more hard-hitting than had been anticipated. Second, attention is drawn to two key major works of reference: the 2005 journal article by Gerry Simson, and the 2010 monograph by Marc Weller. Prior to March 2003, it had been widely anticipated that there would be military action against Iraq by the United States and its allies, but that such action would be motivated by the “Bush doctrine” of preemptive action, namely the use of force, announced by President Bush on 1 June 2002. So the third section pays attention to the pre-2003 scholarly literature to this effect, including a symposium that went to press just as the military action commenced. To the surprise of almost all commentators, the US and UK, despite having failed to secure authorization from the UN Security Council, did advance a legal justification, which was in itself a relief for supporters of the UN and the international rule of law. But the US and UK did not rely on preemptive self-defense, but rather on the argument that the authorization of use of force (“all necessary means”), in UN Security Council Resolution 678 of 29 November 1990 after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, had been revived, or was still operative, despite UNSC Resolution 687 of 3 April 1991 on the ceasefire. The fourth section reviews the relevant literature. Finally, references are given for some of the more significant literature on the consequences of the invasion. The majority of scholars have concluded the invasion and its incompetent follow-up were a direct cause of the rise of Daesh (Islamic State), the continued turmoil in Iraq, and the ongoing conflict in Syria. Attention then turns to violations of the international law of armed conflict and international human rights law, and finally to the longer term consequences of the invasion.

The Report of the Iraq Inquiry (the Chilcot Report)

The former UK prime minister Gordon Brown announced on 15 June 2009 that an Inquiry would be conducted to identify lessons that could be learned from the Iraq conflict. This was an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors. None of them were lawyers. They were to consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, with the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken. The Inquiry studied over 150,000 contemporaneous documents. Its report was published on Wednesday, 6 July 2016, with 2.6 million words in twelve volumes. A physical copy was priced at £767. It was also published online. The report sets out government decision-making from when the possibility of military action first arose in 2001 to the departure of UK troops in 2009. Among the main findings are the following: “Mr Blair asked Parliament to endorse a decision to invade and occupy a sovereign nation, without the support of a Security Council resolution explicitly authorising the use of force. Parliament endorsed that choice.” “The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory.” It was not until 13 March 2003 that Lord Goldsmith advised that there was, on balance, a secure legal basis for military action.” “When Lord Goldsmith met No. 10 officials on 27 February, he told them that he had reached the view that a ‘reasonable case’ could be made that resolution 1441 was capable of reviving the authorisation to use force in resolution 678 (1990) without a further resolution, if there were strong factual grounds for concluding that Iraq had failed to take the final opportunity offered by resolution 1441.” “Until that time, No.10 could not have been sure that Lord Goldsmith would advise that there was a basis on which military action against Iraq could be taken in the absence of a further decision of the Security Council.” Elliott 2016, Oborne 2016, and Robinson 2017 provide some more recent evaluations of the report, Elliott 2016 from a military point of view, writing in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute, regretting that in their many pages the committee did not pay more attention to the internal workings of the British military. The Conservative journalist Oborne wrote an alternative version of the Chilcot Report, excoriating Blair and Bush (Oborne 2016), while Robinson 2017 had acerbic criticisms of the UK and its role.

  • Chilcot, J. The Report of the Iraq Inquiry. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 2016.

    See introductory paragraph to this section for a full description of the report.

  • Elliott, Christopher. “The Chilcot Report: Early Thoughts on Military Matters.” The RUSI Journal 161.4 (2016).

    DOI: 10.1080/03071847.2016.1224487

    While the Chilcot Report has shed light on Britain’s involvement in the conflict, it could have provided a more detailed assessment of the decision-making processes for the UK’s military operations.

  • Oborne, Peter. Not the Chilcot Report. London, Head of Zeus, 2016.

    A forensic examination of the way evidence was doctored and the law manipulated in 2002 and 2003 in order to justify a war for regime change. The government bent facts to fit its determination to join the US invasion, Parliament failed to scrutinize evidence, the intelligence service was perverted, and the media lost its head.

  • Robinson, Piers. “Learning from the Chilcot Report: Propaganda, Deception and the ‘War on Terror.’” International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies 11.1–2 (2017): 47–73.

    DOI: 10.1386/ijcis.11.1-2.47_1

    Argues that the Chilcot Report supports the thesis that, through distortions and omissions, deceptive OPC (organized persuasive communication) campaigns presented a misleading impression of both the threat posed by Iraqi WMD and Britain’s commitment to a peaceful resolution via the “UN route.”

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