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Chilcot inquiry must not fall prey to the “national security” excuse

Written by Jameela Raymond on Thursday, 17 July 2014

Earlier this month, a Cabinet Office spokesman in the Lords said it would be “highly undesirable” for the Iraq Inquiry report to be released in the three months before the general election – meaning the document we have already been waiting three years for may have to wait until the next parliament.


 

Earlier this month a Cabinet Office spokesman in the Lords said it would be “highly undesirable” for the Iraq Inquiry report to be released in the three months before the general election – meaning the document we have already been waiting three years for may have to wait until the next parliament.

But this is not the only problem; Transparency International’s alarm bells rung back in May when it was revealed that the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence have blocked the publication of both meeting records and exchanges between Tony Blair and George W. Bush and the release of six essays by senior serving officers about lessons learned from the conflict in Iraq.

The Chilcot Inquiry which investigates Britain’s decision to go to war with Iraq, has agreed – apparently with reluctance – to include only the ‘gist’ of the documents in the final report, giving up their long-standing insistence that all evidence should be available to the public.

The decision to set up the Chilcot Inquiry was celebrated for its commitment to transparency, accountability and integrity. At the time, Gordon Brown stressed that “no British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry” unless it is “essential to our national security.”  Now, the omission of this potentially crucial information threatens the legitimacy of the investigation and contributes to a culture of opacity in defence and security services.

Why does this matter to Transparency International?  It is because, in the decade since we set up our Defence & Security Programme, we have heard the national security excuse time and time again.  At times, there are genuine reasons for information to remain confidential due to national security.  At times, it is an excuse to hide corruption and avoid embarrassing those who do not wish their decisions to be accountable.

National security is no excuse for excessive secrecy and it is a phrase that democratic governments should use only when it genuinely applies.  Rather than protect us, a lack of transparency can foster insecurity at home and abroad by undermining the legitimacy of our armed forces and the decision-making process of our elected representatives. The Iraq war had an enormous human and financial cost to Britain and its citizens. It stretches the imagination to believe that the reasons for going to war should not be made public.  The net result is that our leaders will not be held accountable for their actions.

The agreement to publicise ‘the gist’ of the Blair-Bush exchanges will almost certainly be inadequate in answering any later questions on the inquiry’s finding. Those who made Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Defence and were told to ‘wait for Chilcot’ will be unlikely to receive satisfactory answers. Justification is required, either from the obstructive parties or the inquirers themselves, for why information is being withheld.

The Tshwane Principles, which provide guidance on balancing the right to information and the need for limited confidentiality to protect national security,are an example of the kind of international norm that could guide the government’s approach to the Chilcot enquiry. They propose guidelines for releasing information relevant to a decision to commit combat troops or take other military action, including confirmation of the fact of taking such action, its general size and scope, and an explanation of the rationale for it, as well as any information that demonstrates that a fact stated as part of the public rationale was mistaken.’’ Among other recommendations, they state:

 

No public authority (armed forces, intelligence agencies, offices of head of state and government, security agencies) may be exempted from disclosure requirements;

Information on gross violations of human rights laws or humanitarian laws, including crime under international law or widespread violations of rights to liberty and security may not be withheld on national security grounds in any circumstances.

The Chilcot Inquiry, as it stands, contradicts some of the most crucial Tshwane principles. It will exclude information relevant to the decision to take military action in Iraq, ignore a responsibility to disclose information that has had a direct impact on human rights, exempt public authorities from being transparent and use national security excuses to omit information on activities under international law. 

State secrecy exists to protect civilian life and the integrity of our society. It must not be used as a means for government and defence authorities to avoid answering tough questions.  If national security is genuinely at stake, the government should provide the public with a strong, detailed, and timely justification for why the documents can’t be made public.  And most importantly, the Chilcot Inquiry should be asked whether it agrees that national security is at stake, and therefore that the documents are too sensitive to be made public.  If the reason for withholding them is to prevent embarrassment, the government should be ashamed to use the excuse of national security, think again, and find a way to back down.

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Read 14639 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 11:47
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Jameela Raymond

Jameela is Transparency International UK's Senior Policy Officer. You can follow her on Twitter @jameelaraymond

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