Jack Straw – 2003 Speech on Re-integrating Iraq


Below is the text of the speech made by the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, on re-integrating Iraq into the international community. The speech was made at Chatham House on 21st February 2003.

On behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I would like to thank Professor Bulmer-Thomas and his team for their efforts over the past twelve months. It’s hard to overstate the importance of our partnership with Chatham House. As we enter an uncertain new era in international affairs, it’s all the more important that FCO staff are able to step back from the day to day vicissitudes of diplomacy and develop a strategic perspective on the environment in which they operate. Chatham House has performed this invaluable service for British diplomats for the past 80 years.

Earlier this month, FCO officials and academics met here to discuss one of the great challenges of our times, the growing phenomenon of state failure. In my remarks today I want to focus on a state which has utterly failed its citizens: Iraq.

However, Iraq differs from the classic failed state in one key respect. Unlike, say Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo where it is the collapse of the state which has led to such misery for their peoples, in Iraq it is an all too powerful state – an authoritarian regime – which has terrorised its population in order first to establish and then to maintain control.

The United Nations has been trying to remove a central pillar of Saddam’s apparatus of terror – his weapons of mass destruction – for the past 12 years. As this stand-off enters its final phase, my message today is that in securing Iraq’s disarmament we will remove the threat Saddam poses to his neighbours and the wider world; we will effect a decisive shift in the fortunes of the long suffering Iraqi people; and we will have reasserted the authority of the international rule of law.

Amidst talk of European splits and transatlantic rifts, it’s worth remembering that the objective of Iraqi disarmament unites the world. EU Heads of State confirmed this week that they would not tolerate Saddam’s defiance of UN demands indefinitely. SCR 1441, which was passed unanimously last November, told Saddam that he had a final opportunity to disarm voluntarily. If he did not, and if he failed to comply immediately with weapons inspectors and the other obligations on him, he would face ‘serious consequences.’ Diplomatic parlance is notoriously ambiguous, but in this case the terminology had only one meaning: disarmament by force.


SCR 1441 hardly marked a sudden rush to war. Iraq was found guilty in 1991. Twelve years of defiance later, Saddam Hussein is not entitled to any presumption of innocence. It is for him to prove that he has, once and for all, given up what we know he has.

UN inspectors would not be in Iraq today without the threat of force. But inspectors cannot achieve containment without co-operation. If co-operation is denied, the UN Security Council has already warned that force must be used. Otherwise Iraq will again use these terrible weapons. This is a key part of the moral case – preventing Iraq launching more wars of aggression, and dealing definitively with a tyrant who flouts international non-proliferation norms.

In diplomacy, international unity on the ends – if not the means – is a rare and precious commodity. But in respect of Iraq there is agreement on the end. This reflects a common perception that Saddam’s appetite for WMD, when married to his willingness to use all possible means to repress his own people and intimidate his neighbours, makes him a unique threat to international peace and security.

But consensus on the objective is not simply based on the extent of the Iraqi threat. With each passing year of Iraqi defiance of international opinion, there has been growing awareness of the immense consequences of a failure to match our words with actions. In a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies last week, I set out the profoundly damaging implications for international efforts to halt the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. And I examined the great damage which inactivity and vacillation would inflict on the authority of the UN Security Council. The stakes could not be higher. If the UN proves unable to act on the spirit and the letter of mandatory Chapter VII resolutions when faced with the most egregious non-compliance it risks joining its predecessor, the League of Nations, as a footnote in history.


We should not forget that the consequences of inaction would not just be disastrous for the international legal system. We would be delivering another blow to the long suffering Iraqi people.

One of the myths about Saddam’s regime, which I heard repeated only this morning, is that the full brutality of his regime has been effectively constrained since the end of the Gulf War. The UN and various NGOs have amassed a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the most shocking example was Saddam’s policy of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, when he drained the marsh areas of southern Iraq, forcing the population to relocate to urban areas where it could be controlled by the regime’s security forces. In the words of the UN Environment Programme, ‘around 40,000 of the estimated half-million Marsh Arabs are now living in refugee camps in Iran,’ and ‘a 5000 year old culture ..is in serious jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end.’

Neither should we forget that, amongst the welter of horrifying statistics about Saddam’s human rights abuses, it is the Iraqi people themselves who have been and remain the most likely victims of his WMD.

One of the problems is that the statistics sound abstract. To counter this, I met 10 Iraqi exiles this morning. They reeled off a list impossible to invent of relatives who had disappeared or who had been tortured. One told me how a cousin – a woman doctor – had been killed in front of her family. Some of them would not be photographed, in case they were identified by the regime. If you wondered why Iraqi scientists are afraid to be interviewed by the inspectors, it is for the same reason. They fear for their lives.

Saddam believes his poisons and gases are a key element in his military arsenal, not a weapon of last resort. The Iraqi regime used nerve agents to gas 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in the village of Halabja in 1988. Memories of this incident in the west may have been dulled by the passage of time. But the Iraqi Kurds will forever bear the scars. Only this morning, I heard Baram Salhi, a leading political figure in northern Iraq, urging those who counsel indefinite containment of Saddam to reconsider.

I ask you to imagine the lasting psychological impact on the British public of a chemical weapons attack – carried out by the Armed Forces – against one of our minority ethnic groups. Fourteen years afterwards, would anyone suggest that such an attack would not leave the public in constant fear of a repeat?

Recent intelligence shows that Saddam’s military plans envisage using chemical and biological weapons against a range of targets, including his own Shia population. Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them. During the Cold War, people in Britain had to become inured to the everyday possibility of annihilation. Imagine the effect on the public psyche if this threat came not from an external adversary, but from one’s own government.

As the UN considers the case for enforcement of its resolutions, the fate of the Iraqi people must loom large in our calculations. If it comes to military conflict, there will be victims. War is terrible. But there are circumstances in which the consequences of not going to war are more terrible still. There will be victims too if our weakness emboldens a regime which has killed hundreds of thousands. Conversely, by disarming Iraq we will either fundamentally change the character of the regime or, if military intervention proves necessary, then change the regime itself. Either way, the enforcement of UN resolutions will mean that Iraq is free from the fetters of UN sanctions, and finally able to take the first steps on the path to a prosperous future.

I think I understand the anxieties of those who joined last weekend’s marches. Just as those in power have a duty to answer the questions posed by those on Saturday’s march. I think it fair for me to ask one in return. Please consider the consequences of lifting the military pressure we are applying to the Iraqi regime. The answer I offer is: if we take the military pressure away, there would be no co-operation, no inspections. The tyranny of the Iraqi people would go on. The intimidation of his neighbours would go on. And dictators everywhere would see that defiance pays.

Dealing with a dictator who cares nothing for human life creates a fearful dilemma for those who have the courage to confront him. We are approaching a time when a hard choice has to be made. None of us has a monopoly on conscience, or on hatred of war, or on being in the right. As a nation, we should conduct a conversation with one another in a spirit of mutual respect for the other side of the argument. I believe that is now happening. Next week on Monday I will be attending an EU Foreign Ministers Meeting to discuss Iraq and other issues; on Tuesday the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House of Commons to report this week’s EU Heads of Government Meeting; and on Wednesday we have arranged a debate in the House of Commons on a substantive motion, with a parallel debate in the House of Lords. Of course, no such national debate would be possible in Iraq. Saddam has no marchers to persuade of his murderous policies.

While we debate the choice ahead of us, millions of Iraqis endure the horrors of Saddam’s rule. There are many deeply disturbing aspects of life in Iraq today. Arbitrary execution, racial persecution and other forms of state sanctioned violence have been an everyday fact of life under Saddam for the past 24 years. The nature of the regime has perhaps best been described by the former Dutch Foreign Minister, Max van der Stoel, who visited Iraq on behalf of the UN in 1992. He concluded that the brutality of the Iraqi regime was ‘of an exceptionally grave character – so grave that it has few parallels in the years that have passed since the Second World War.’


Since Saddam’s assumption of power in 1979 his regime – even by the dreadful standards of the twentieth century – has become a byword for barbarity. His impact on his country has been all the more depressing when one considers the direction Iraq might have taken in the 1970s. At that time, there was every prospect that Iraq might build on its rich cultural legacy and wealth of natural resources to become one of the leading countries in the Muslim world.

Although the state of Iraq has existed only since 1920, the area now incorporated within its borders has been the home of several of mankind’s earliest civilisations. Two of the greatest advances in humankind’s evolution have originated on Iraqi soil. The first was the practice of agriculture. In the foothills of what is now northern Iraq, agriculture and the domestication of animals were practised over 6000 years ago.

The second was the development of urban life in the city state organisations of Sumeria. By the fourth millennium BC, a complex of 13 city states stretched from Baghdad to the Gulf.

The Sumerians created the first accurate calendars based on the 12 month lunar year and the cycle of 60 minutes and 12 hours that we still use to tell the time.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was every reason to expect that the territory which eventually became Iraq in 1920 would have a prosperous future. When Saddam Hussein assumed power, Iraq had a burgeoning salaried middle class and enjoyed a rising standard of living. Iraq’s GDP per capita income in 1979 bore comparison with that of Malaysia and Portugal. At the start of the Iran-Iraq war it was more prosperous than most of the Arab world. As oil prices rose in 1980, its GDP per head reached $3000 and its foreign reserves close to $40 billion. With a decade of peace and merely tolerable economic management, Iraq would have widened the prosperity gap over its neighbours.

The appalling impact of Saddam’s mismanagement is not well enough known. People understand that he is evil, but not that he has presided over an economic catastrophe, brought about by incompetence and indifference in equal measure. It is no accident. It is a product of enormous spending on his weapons of terror, and of his utter disregard for the fate of Iraq’s people. As people come to learn more about the nature of the regime, I am convinced they increasingly see why it must be disarmed of its terrible weaponry, even if – as a last resort – that means military action. And the more people understand the regime, the less inclined they will be to give it the benefit of the doubt, as it claims laughably to have no WMD, and manoeuvres cynically to deceive the UN with minor concessions.

Saddam has engineered one of the swiftest transitions from potential prosperity to third world basket case in history. Misguided economic policies played their part. But the real culprits were Saddam’s regional ambitions, his drive to expand his armed forces, and the wars of aggression he waged against Iran and then Kuwait.

These wars resulted in over one million Muslim casualties. Yet they hardly sated Saddam’s appetite for slaughter. In 1988 he prosecuted a genocidal campaign in northern Iraq which was responsible for the deaths or disappearance of up to 100,000 Muslim Kurds.

Given the regime’s obsession with secrecy and its isolation from the outside world, we may never know the full extent of Saddam Hussein’s oppression of the Iraqi people. But the testimony of defectors and accounts from the UN Special Rapporteur provide a damning indictment of a regime that respects no moral boundaries.

The international community has been casting around for a response to Saddam’s repression for the past ten years. It is clear that a solution does not lie in the international human rights machinery established in the aftermath of the Holocaust and reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whilst this machinery may have helped to improve human rights situations in certain countries from South Africa under apartheid to Suharto’s Indonesia, it has utterly failed the people of Iraq.

The search for solutions led us in the first instance to impose military measures. In enforcing the southern and northern No Fly Zones, British and American aircraft have, at least for the time being, deterred Saddam from carrying out a repeat of the Halabja atrocity.

In northern Iraq, where UN sanctions also apply but Saddam’s writ runs out, the people are better off than they ever were under his control. School enrolments are rising, not falling as in Baghdad controlled Iraq. Health indicators are improving. Infant mortality rates are now lower than before sanctions were imposed. Under the Oil for Food programme, $18 million has been spent on renovating 41 hospitals in northern Iraq. Freed from the tyranny of Saddam’s rule, the Iraqi Kurds have shown what might be possible across the country as a whole if Saddam wasn’t there. A democracy has begun to emerge, underpinned by the principles of free speech and right of association.

But in central Iraq there is only so much the outside world can do while Saddam remains in charge. A telling example is his decade-long abuse of the oil for food system. Saddam has regularly halted his oil exports to make a political point, starving the humanitarian programme of revenue for essential supplies, blackmailing the world through his people’s suffering. In recent years billions of dollars has lain unspent in the UN Oil for Food Account. Oil revenues that should have been spent on essential medicines, foodstuffs, hospitals and schools have languished in a UN account in New York. Up to $2.3 billion worth of goods already approved by the UN remain undelivered because Iraq has not processed the contracts. Saddam has attempted to perpetuate the myth that the UN – rather than his utter disregard for human life – is responsible for the dire humanitarian plight of the Iraqi people.

At the same time, Saddam has circumvented UN sanctions both by smuggling oil and manipulating the Oil for Food Programme. The illegal revenues he has generated, worth up to $3 billion to the regime, have underpinned a covert network to procure materiel for WMD, and have helped to bolster his apparatus of internal repression.

The tragedy for the Iraqi people is that Security Council resolutions have always held out the prospect of a swift end to sanctions in return for Iraqi disarmament. In rejecting this path, Saddam has ensured that the UN policy of containment has effectively imprisoned the Iraqi people under his exceptionally brutal dictatorship. Millions of Iraqis have been condemned to a life of fear and penury.

The impact has been staggering. Almost four million Iraqis – a sixth of the population – have left the country, bringing their skills and talents to many countries, including the UK.

For those who cannot escape, the suffering has been truly unimaginable. About 60% of the population are completely dependent on the central government for food rations. About 50% of the Iraqi workforce are unemployed. UNICEF estimates that close to a quarter of Iraqi children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. Against this backdrop, it beggars belief that the Iraqi regime has proposed spending $20 million from the Oil for Food Programme to build an ‘Olympic Sports City’. When I heard this I didn’t believe. I checked it. The source is UN Office for Iraq Programme Distribution Plan, Para. 222.

Given the understandable fear of expressing any criticism in public, it’s difficult to assess the impact Saddam’s policies have had on the attitudes of the Iraqi people. But one thing is clear: Saddam’s popularity is a myth. Clandestine polling by the regime in recent months – picked up by our intelligence services – reveals that a majority of Iraqis support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. A survey of Iraqi public opinion carried out by the International Crisis Group – a respected Brussels based NGO – has shown that a majority accepted that political change was both desirable and inevitable. This survey revealed a profound weariness with Saddam’s rule, and a prevailing belief that the country has essentially been at war for the past two decades.

The ICG survey confirms that, like people in any other part of the world, the Iraqi public has a natural desire to choose their own destiny and Government, and to pursue a prosperous life within a safe environment for friends and family. The UK wants to help Iraq to achieve this. If we are obliged to take military action, our objective will be to secure Iraq’s disarmament. But our next priority will be to help the Iraqi people to recover.

After the damage inflicted by Saddam, I am under no illusions about the scale of the reconstruction task. Democracy will not take root overnight in a country which has a long history of tribal, ethnic and religious division and mistrust.


But the Iraqi people can take heart from nature’s rich endowment. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world. This can provide a vital source of national revenue as the country begins the long haul towards recovery. Of all the criticisms of our motives in pursuing Iraqi disarmament, the myth that we are actually motivated by a desire to secure Iraq’s oil supplies is perhaps the most pervasive. Our cause is about weapons not oil, fear not greed.

The threat of military action is, and always has been, about pressuring Saddam Hussein to comply with SCR 1441. If this was about ensuring greater oil supplies, it would be infinitely easier to cut a deal with Saddam under which he would continue to develop his weapons in return for giving us access to his oil reserves.

Iraq is a major oil producer. We all depend on regularity of supplies, not least from the Middle East. But the simple answer to those who say this is about our greed for Iraqi oil is this: unlike Saddam, we would ensure that Iraq’s oil wealth was used to the benefit of the Iraqi people. That is a promise, and not just from Britain. Colin Powell has made the same commitment on behalf of the US. I hope this oil pledge kills the myth once and for all. But I recognise that for the professional conspiracy theorists, no answer is good enough.

If a coalition of forces has to enter Iraq in the coming months to remove the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons, we will move swiftly to secure Iraq’s oil fields. We will ensure that the revenue generated from this resource will be used in accordance with international law and to the benefit of the people of Iraq. Oil is Iraq’s legacy. It is a resource which the Iraqi people can use to build a better future, to buy clean water, to build schools and hospitals, not to enrich a murderous elite or to help the regime amass an arsenal of the world’s most deadly weapons.

Our future vision for Iraq is of a stable, united and law abiding state, within its present borders, co-operating with the UN, no longer posing a threat to its neighbours or to international security, abiding by its international obligations and providing effective representational government for its people. We want the Iraqi people to live in a better Iraq – the prosperous country it was until Saddam imprisoned and plundered it.


Ladies and Gentlemen, one of the more extraordinary criticisms of the government’s policy towards Iraq is that our approach smacks of hypocrisy. I have never fully grasped the logic of the argument, but it runs something like this. Given the military and diplomatic support from a host of western governments – including the UK – for Saddam during the 1980s, how can we now claim to occupy the moral high ground in criticising his human rights abuses and possession of WMD?

It is undoubtedly true that policy towards Iraq in the 1980s from many countries in the west did not factor in Saddam’s real horror. But to suggest today that to atone for the errors of the past we should repeat them, and that we cannot act to address the horrors of the present defies rational analysis.

This flawed argument is a counsel of inaction, at best an exercise in hand washing. In the weeks preceding the military interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, some argued then that force could not possibly be justified. We acted, liberating millions of Muslims from fear and oppression. Enforcement of Saddam’s obligations to disarm of his WMD may not have quite the same immediate impact on the long-suffering people of Iraq. But it will mark the first, decisive step towards Iraq’s reintegration into the international community of nations. This cause is not only just in the narrow terms of international law, but it has a compelling moral force which is too great to ignore.