Civil servants kept minister in the dark on Iraq war

Civil servants kept minister in the dark on Iraq war

23rd January 2009, Comments 0 comments

The legal basis for the Netherlands' political support of the American-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused strife within the foreign affairs ministry, Joost Oranje writes for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper.

"Bury it well in the archives for future generations," was written on a crucial memorandum.  

Senior civil servants at the foreign affairs ministry held back critical legal advice from the foreign minister on political support for the Iraq war. In a secret memorandum dated April 29, 2003, the department of legal affairs of the ministry stated that the legal justification for the Dutch position showed "material and procedural shortcomings". The lawyers even concluded that "the Netherlands would lose any case brought before the International Court of Justice".

The Netherlands gave political support to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain, which began on March 20, but did not send troops. Prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who has been in charge since 2002, has always refused calls for an inquiry into the motives for the Dutch support.

Mr Balkenende has repeatedly voiced his standpoint that the Netherlands had given political support to the invasion of Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to comply with United Nation resolutions and that the Dutch decision was therefore not based directly on the presence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction.  

AFP PHOTO / KHALIL AL-MURSHIDI
Two Iraqi men stand next to the remains of a vehicle following a car bomb attack on January 21, 2009 in Baghdad, targeting a Sunni politician who heads a Baghdad Islamic university. The explosion in the Sunni Muslim enclave of the predominantly Shiite northeast of the Iraqi capital killed four students and wounded at least 10 people, officials said. Al-Ani, a senior official of the Iraqi Islamic Party which will contest Iraq's provincial elections on January 31, escaped unharmed but two of his bodyguards were among the wounded. AFP PHOTO / KHALIL AL-MURSHIDI

"Bury it"
Secretary general of the department at the time, Frank Majoor - currently the permanent representative of the Netherlands at the United Nations - decided not to send the memorandum about the legal justification on to the Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer - now Nato's secretary general - even though it was addressed to him. "Bury it well in the archives for future generations. At this moment the discussion is closed!" was written on the memorandum.  

Ignored US resolutions
Senior civil servants at the foreign affairs ministry held back critical legal advice from the foreign minister on political support for the Iraq war. In a secret memorandum dated April 29, 2003, the department of legal affairs of the ministry stated that the legal justification for the Dutch position showed "material and procedural shortcomings". The lawyers even concluded that "the Netherlands would lose any case brought before the International Court of Justice".

Dutch foreign ministry (photo Jensbn)The Netherlands gave political support to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain, which began on March 20, but did not send troops. Prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who has been in charge since 2002, has always refused calls for an inquiry into the motives for the Dutch support.

Mr Balkenende has repeatedly voiced his standpoint that the Netherlands had given political support to the invasion of Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to comply with United Nation resolutions and that the Dutch decision was therefore not based directly on the presence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction.

"Bury it"
Secretary general of the department at the time, Frank Majoor - currently the permanent representative of the Netherlands at the United Nations - decided not to send the memorandum about the legal justification on to the Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer - now Nato's secretary general - even though it was addressed to him. "Bury it well in the archives for future generations. At this moment the discussion is closed!" was written on the memorandum.  

The ministry's lawyers reacted with the remark: "The audite et alteram partem (fair hearing for the opposition) apparently does not apply here." The foreign affairs ministry will not comment on why Majoor did not pass on the memorandum or if Mr De Hoop Scheffer was told of the contents of the memorandum at the time.

No UN resolution
The fact that Dutch civil servants had written warning notes about the justification for the invasion before the war began had already been acknowledged. But it now seems that foreign affairs ministry civil servants were arguing about the legal basis for the political support given by the Netherlands to the American-British operation after the invasion had begun.

The government, but also a number of senior civil servants at the ministry, thought the invasion could be supported without a specific resolution by the UN security council. The Netherlands felt such a resolution was "politically desirable but not necessary". The department of legal affairs contests that.
AFP PHOTO / ESSAM AL-SUDANI
Mourners grieve during the burial of Iraqi police Colonel Adbulmajid Mohammed killed by an explosive device planted under his car in the town of al-Zubair, near the southern port city of Basra, on January 20, 2009. The police colonel was killed today and a deputy minister escaped unharmed in two separate bomb attacks that left five people wounded, officials said. AFP PHOTO / ESSAM AL-SUDANI

According to conversations with informed sources and confidential government documents, the lawyers thought their critical opinion of the justification for political support was not taken seriously. In addition, the department of legal affairs was troubled by the fact that it had to provide "the best possible legal support for the Dutch point of view" and that it was not asked for an "objective assessment according to international law". Consequently the department of legal affairs took the initiative because otherwise the minister would be "insufficiently informed", according to the memorandum in question.

The lawyers were of the opinion that the then director general of political affairs did not substantiate his opinion in favour of the government's standpoint with internationally legal arguments, but that his support was "mainly politically tinged".  

No comment
The foreign affairs ministry has refused to comment on the content. The ministry says, "As a rule, the acceptance by ministers of substantial texts is preceded by one or more rounds of suggestions and advice by civil servants. What counts is the text finally chosen by ministers."

The leaking of the memorandum has increased the political pressure for an inquiry into the Netherlands political support for the Iraq war in 2003. A large number of parties in parliament have now asked for clarification of the document, with the left-wing liberal party D66 and several parties in parliament demanding an inquiry. The government has recently answered several questions from the senate, but a majority judged the result as unsatisfactory.
AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
Two prosthetic limbs sit on a shelf at the newly inaugurated Al-Muthana hospital and centre for artificial limbs in Baghdad on January 19, 2009. According to UN agencies Iraqis live amidst one of the greatest concentrations of landmines, unexploded ordinance in the world. A 2007 report from the Ministry of Health in Iraq indicated that there were approximately 80,000 amputees in Iraqi, their injuries mostly caused by these explosive remnants of war. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

Mr Balkenende said on Saturday that he had no knowledge of the memorandum, but "will look into it". He reiterated there is no need for a parliamentary inquiry.

Mr De Hoop Scheffer refused to comment on the case, because of his current position and responsibilities at Nato.

NRC Handelsblad International / Radio Netherlands

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