Tony Blair should face war crimes tribunal over Iraq war, says Hans Blix

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks during an interview in central London on March 17, 2023. - Tony Blair came to power as leader of Britain's Labour party in the years after it suffered a paralysing defeat to the Conservatives that few saw coming. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY Jitendra JOSHI (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Tony Blair has expressed regret over his handling of the war but still insists it was the right thing to do. (Getty Images)

This week marks the 20th anniversary since the beginning of the Iraq War - one of the most controversial conflicts in modern times.

On 20 March 2003, the US launched its first airstrikes on the Gulf state - lighting up the skies above Baghdad with an ultra-aggressive "shock and awe" strategy.

Soon after a coalition of American, British, Australian and Polish soldiers marched over the border from Kuwait to execute “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.

The US-led coalition invaded largely on the premise of alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) held by Saddam Hussein’s regime, but none were found.

Revelations of faulty intelligence, and in some cases sheer dishonesty, used to justify the eight-year conflict, left many in the West very angry that their countries had been dragged into a war on dubious grounds.

Watch: Former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix says Tony Blair should face a tribunal for Iraq invasion

Of all the key actors involved in the invasion, one that often generates the most intense reaction is Tony Blair, the prime minister who backed US president George Bush and has since faced criticism and vitriol from many quarters.

Now, the former weapons inspector who was tasked with investigating Iraq's alleged possession of WMDs for the United Nations has spoken out against the former PM.

Speaking on MSNBC ahead of the anniversary, Hans Blix said that, "in principle", Blair and Bush should have faced consequences for their invasion - which is now widely regarded as illegal under international law.

Read more: Photos: Iraq war’s 20th anniversary — the advance from Kuwait to the occupation of Baghdad

He said there should be a penalty for breaking the "principle rule" of the United Nations charter - not to "use force against the territorial integrity and independence of other states".

Blix pointed to the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, and demands for Vladimir Putin to face charges following the Ukraine invasion, claiming this is very much the standard the international community should adhere to.

AL-SAD, IRAQ:  A US soldier stands guard in front of a convoy waiting to defuse an explosive device on the road leading to al-Sad, 150 kms north of Baghdad, 08 November 2003. The device was discovered by a Kiowa helicopter escorting the convoy.  AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI  (Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP via Getty Images)
The Iraq War dragged on for eight years as the US and UK rushed in with no solid exit strategy. (Getty Images)

Asked if he thought Bush and Blair should face trial at the Hague for alleged war crimes, he said: "I think in principle, yes.

"I think they will not come, and nor will Putin come for a tribunal, but nevertheless holding a tribunal and going through the evidence will be of value.

"We hear very much from the Western world about the 'rule based international order' - well that is the one that the US, the UK and the others broke in 2003."

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Blix had been asked by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to determine whether Hussein really did possess the WMDs it was claimed he was hiding.

At the start of 2003, he reported that Iraq most likely did not possess weapons of mass destruction or the means to produce them.

Former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix arrives to give evidence to the Iraq Inquiry at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, in London July 27, 2010. Blix is likely to heap further criticism on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq at a British inquiry on Tuesday, adding weight to the negative appraisals given by other senior figures.  REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS CONFLICT)
Former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix says he was sad he wasn't given more time to investigate. (Reuters)

He asked for more time to reach a clearer verdict, but the US and UK decided they'd had enough and launched their invasion.

Blix said he felt "sadness" that he wasn't allowed more time, and said it wasn't reasonable "to close the door on inspections after three months".

He later became much more vocal in his criticism of the invasion, telling BBC Panorama in 2016 that Blair had “misrepresented the facts” when he told UK MPs about Iraq’s chemical weapon capabilities.

Read more: Why did Keir Starmer ignore the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War?

The Swedish diplomat said he thought Blair "had a feeling that this was an evil regime and that it was a moral thing to do away with it", but said he "did not represent the reality" when presenting his justifications.

Speaking to the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK's role in Iraq, Blix said he told Blair that while he suspected there were some "prohibited items" in Iraq, the UN's "belief in the intelligence had been weakened" by a lack of evidence.

Tony Blair and the Iraq war

Demonstrators wave placards in front of police during a protest, as Britain's former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gives evidence to the Iraq Inquiry, in London, January 29, 2010. Protesters chanting
Demonstrators gathered as Blair gave evidence to the Iraq Inquiry in 2010. (Reuters)

One of the reasons so much anger has been directed at Blair was his apparent overstating of the danger posed by Hussein's regime to rush into a war for which the UK was poorly prepared.

For example, his headline-grabbing claim made in Parliament that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, "which could be activated within 45 minutes", turned out to be based on bogus intelligence.

Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the Chairman UK's Iraq War inquiry, said the decision to go to war was not the "last resort" option that Blair had presented to the public.

Read more: We’ve Erased the Iraq War From Our Memory, but Not the Shame

On the eve of the invasion, Blair warned MPs about the possibility of WMDs falling into the hands of terror groups, which he said was a "real and present danger to Britain and its national security".

However, he had been warned that military action would increase the threat from Al Qaeda to the UK and open up new territory for jihadists by bringing instability to the region.

Since the end of the war, Blair has continued to attract much criticism, particularly amid ongoing political instability in Iraq, which became a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists.

Rejecting most of the criticisms in the Chilcot report, he insisted he did not mislead the country and that he "made the decision in good faith".

Read more: Voices: I lost my son during the Iraq War. This is my message for Tony Blair

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President George W. Bush during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 13, 2009. The award is the highest civilian honour that is given in the United States.      REUTERS/Jason Reed      (UNITED STATES)
Blair receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush during a ceremony in 2009. (Reuters)

However, he did "express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever know or believe,” that the war had created chaos in the region and resulted in Iraqis becoming victims of sectarian violence.

In 2017 the High Court ruled that Blair should not face prosecution for his role in the war, but resentment still lingers among some quarters even 20 years later.

Even today, it is a lightning rod in the UK's political discourse.

On Monday, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned why Blair faced no charges while Boris Johnson was fined by the Met Police over "eating a slice of cake" amid the "Partygate" scandal and subsequently called before Parliament's Privileges Committee.

Read more: 'Plunging a country into chaos': What lessons have been learned 20 years after the invasion of Iraq?

He told GB News: "This seems to me to be completely disproportionate when a much bigger mistake never led to equivalent parliamentary action."

Rees-Mogg added: "Harriet Harman, who now presides over the privileges committee which is looking into something completely different.

"Not a war that cost UK lives, American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. A war on a very large scale which was based on information that wasn’t actually factual in the end."