| Michael Boyce leaving Downing Street, April 2003
Some interesting developments which led to Britain’s decision to go to war in Iraq have gone largely unnoticed in India. The issue came into sharp focus recently when the attorney general, Peter Goldsmith, dropped prosecution charges against Katharine Gun for violating the Official Secrets Act. At the time the crime was supposed to have been committed, she was working as an intelligence officer for the general communication headquarters. The latter is a government civil service department specializing in intelligence and security matters with specific missions of gathering signals intelligence and of ensuring security of its own government’s communications and information from hackers and other threats. On being acquitted, Gun told the media that she had leaked an email last February, just prior to the Iraq war, because she realized that Britain and the United States of America were indulging in bribery and blackmail to get the United Nations security council to authorize the war with Iraq.
Media reports suggest that in the run-up to the Iraq war, the initial opinion provided by the attorney general was to the effect that without a second UN security council resolution, war might be illegal. It has also been reported that the advice was prevaricating, and the attorney general appeared to be sitting on the fence. Admiral Michael Boyce, now retired, has recently broken his silence, and in an interview confirmed that he had indeed demanded an unambiguous one-line note from the attorney general confirming the legality of going to war to safeguard his military commanders and personnel from any prospects of subsequently being put through the mill at the International Criminal Court.
Only when he was satisfied did he accord his approval for committing British troops to war. The fact that he sought this confirmation barely 10 days before the operations began and that the confirmation came just five days prior to the commencement of operations would indicate serious behind-the-scenes differences within the establishment. It is widely believed that the reason why the attorney general has now withdrawn the prosecution case against Gun is that her defence lawyers had demanded that documents relating to his legal advice, including his communications with the prime minister, be made available to them. While the attorney general denies that the reasons for the withdrawal of the prosecution case are political, sceptics remain unconvinced.
Well before the war against Iraq came on the international radar screen, this writer had reflected on the serious differences that Boyce was reportedly having with his government on issues of terrorism and the ICC (“Crime Across the World”, The Telegraph, August 30, 2002). This article concluded that with such strong reservations among the armed forces of the United Kingdom, it was possible that the last word on this had not been heard. The chickens now seem to be coming home to roost for the British government.
It is possible that the differences that the erstwhile chief of defence staff was having with his government in 2002 were related to the reservations of the British military on the question of Britain becoming a signatory to the ICC statute, and preceded the coming into force of the treaty in July 2002, after 77 countries (including Britain) had finally ratified it. Significantly, the US military was not so constrained as the US, an initial signatory to the ICC statute, later withdrew and declined to ratify it. While India justifiably chose not to be a signatory to the treaty, one wonders whether the military leadership was even part of this decision-making process.
Boyce, the erstwhile British CDS, acted not only in the best interests of those he commanded, but more important, he also maintained the sanctity of the institution of the British armed forces. There are hints that had he failed to get such an assurance from his government, he may have resigned, leading to a constitutional crisis at a time the British forces were already poised to go to war in Iraq. How the government would have handled the situation then or indeed how it responds now that skeletons are tumbling out of its closet must remain a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain: at least the reputation of the British armed forces will not be subject to any debate because of the principled stand of their senior-most military officer, even in the face of governmental pressure.
One can safely assume that the reservations of the British CDS about his country’s ratifying the ICC and, indeed, the need to obtain a clear legal view on the Iraq war were the combined views of all the service chiefs, evolved after an in-depth internal consideration of security and military imperatives shorn of political or parochial considerations.
The responsibility for the final view, even if there were differences, rested squarely with the CDS, the senior-most military officer and the single-point military adviser to the government. The absence of a CDS could well have resulted in individual differences amongst the three service chiefs being exploited to the detriment of the larger national cause, with undesirable consequences for the military. The institution of the CDS is therefore a vital one, not just for integration of the services and single-point military advice to the government, but also as a good means of checks and balances within the various national security institutions, both civil and military, when dealing with grave national security issues. Somehow, we in India are unable to view a CDS as an imperative within a larger national context. In spite of this need having been accepted by the cabinet committee on security as a part of the larger revamp of security management after Kargil, we have not been able to summon the courage to put this into practice.
While the ICC will have jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, the crime of aggression is still not included. This is because the very definition of aggression remains a subject of negotiations within the ICC preparatory commission. As India knows only too well with respect to terrorism, where perceived national security interests are concerned, definitions begin to defy logic and unanimity becomes a casualty. While India is not a party to the ICC statute, it cannot remain indifferent to one clause in the treaty, which allows the UN security council to refer a situation to the ICC whether or not the countries involved are parties to the ICC statute.
Because the security of nations can be affected today in many ways, often by events happening far away, international attitudes to security are also changing. International treaties like the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the missile technology control regime, the ICC and the international war on terrorism are but some examples of the way the dynamics of international relations and national security are coming together.
Security policy-planning in the future can be expected to be a far more complex exercise than ever before, with greater consequences for any errors. While the emergence of new and varied threats and challenges to India’s security can be anticipated, ample opportunities also open up for international strategic interaction and a more activist role by India to further its own strategic security interests. While a welcome change in this regard has been in evidence of late, it appears driven more by individuals than by institutions.
For such an exercise to benefit from continuity and to meet national security challenges effectively, the country needs to educate and nurture security managers in its civil and military services and institutions, in addition to encouraging policy analysts within the academic community. Only when such individuals begin to occupy positions within both civil and military institutions and indeed, private “think tanks”, will there be larger institutional support for effective security policy-planning. As in the case of the CDS, another major recommendation of the group of ministers to set up a national defence university for precisely such a purpose, continues to be a victim of our bureaucratic and indifferent decision-making process.