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Proclaiming Wars
Publication date: 2007-07-05

Who Should Have the Right to Proclaim Wars

There is some talk in Britain today about transferring the prerogative to declare wars from the Prime Minister to the Parliament.

And most people today understand the prerogative to declare wars as a right to be exercised at one's pleasure.

So, if a Prime Minister wishes so, he can proclaim a war. And, if the prerogative to proclaim wars will be transferred to the Parliament, then, if the majority of the members of the House of Commons would wish to proclaim a war, they will have right to do so.

But government powers (be they of Prime Ministers or of Members of Parliament) are not rights to be enjoyed at one's pleasure. They are given to those in power to enable them to perform their duties. They have duty to exercise the prerogatives given to them when it is necessary, but they have no right to use their prerogatives when they have no duty to do so.

The issue of who should have the prerogative to proclaim wars arose because the current Iraq War has become “controversial” (some people are “for” and some “against”). But people being for or against a war does not make a war legal or illegal. Legality or illegality of a war depends on the reasons why a war is proclaimed, and on the purpose for which it is proclaimed.

For example in the case of the Falklands War: the Falkland Islands, a British Colony was invaded by the Argentinian armed forces without a valid legal reason. This had given reason to the British Prime Minister to order military action to expel the Argentinian Armed forces from the Falkland Islands. The reason for this action was clear, and so was the purpose of the action. And there was little “controversy” about that war.

The current Iraq War lacked a legitimate reason. All attempts to justify that war were based on false arguments. The latest argument is that Tony Blair believes that he had made the right decision. But he had failed to provide a clear reason for his belief. And the Iraq War still remains “controversial”.

In either of the above cases the legality or illegality of the war would not have changed, if the prerogative to proclaim wars were transferred from the Prime Minister to the Parliament.

In fact transferring the prerogative to declare wars from the Prime Minister to the Parliament can increase the possibility that that prerogative can be abused, or not being used, if a genuine need to use it arose. At present it is possible for a Prime Minister to take a wrong decision, but it is very unlikely that a Prime Minister will take a decision which he believes to be wrong. It is part of normal current parliamentary practice for Members of Parliament to vote for what they believe to be wrong — they follow the “Party Line”, or vote to please their constituency. As one veteran Parliamentarian once said, “Prince Philip can afford to say what he believes to be right, because he does not have to stand for re‐elections”. So in addition to being wrong in error, they can vote for decisions which they know (or believe) to be wrong. And while a Prime Minister bears direct responsibility for his decisions, personal responsibility of Members of Parliament is hidden behind the facade of a faceless collective institution. So, if Parliament makes a wrong decision, there is nobody to blame — nobody to bring to account.

And, of course, decisions based on anybody's sincerely held beliefs (or opinions) are not guaranteed to be right.

The constitutional role of Members of Parliament is to represent their constituents, not to govern (or administer) the country. The administration of the country is the duty of the Prime Minister and of the Members of his Cabinet. Proclamation of a war is an administrative action. And it is an action which cannot be legitimately taken just because the majority of people want it. It can be only legitimated by the circumstances, not by votes, wishes, or opinions.

In view of the way Tony Blair had taken his decision to involve Britain into the Iraq War, it is understandable that there is a desire to prevent such decisions being taken in the future and calls for the Government “to do something about it”.

But transferring the prerogative to declare wars from the Prime Minister to the Parliament is not the solution. It is just another case of political “doing‐something‐about‐ism”.

The decision on the Iraq War was wrong not because it was taken by a Prime Minister. It was wrong because the person who happened to be Prime Minister had failed to properly exercise his duties and abused his powers. — He had taken decision to take military action without there being for it a valid reason, and thus abused his prerogative.

There was a parliamentary vote on the Iraq War, and it was in favour of it. So the Parliament did authorise the Iraq War decision. Has this turned an illegitimate war into a legitimate one?

So, in the case of the Iraq War there was a decision by the Prime Minister and a vote by the Parliament. What was missing was:

  1. A statement of the legal principles on which the Government based their decision.
  2. A statement of the facts which were deemed by the Government to justify the war decision.
  3. A statement of relevance of the alleged facts which would show that, if the facts were proved to exist, the above legal principles would be applicable to these facts.
  4. A statement of evidence on which the government based their belief that the alleged facts existed.
  5. A statement of relevance of the evidence which would show that, if the evidence were proved to exist, its existence would constitute sufficient proof that the alleged facts existed.
  6. A statement of the legal entitlement (authority) to take the intended action. This statement would show that, if the existence of the facts is proved, the person making the decision has the authority to take action in accordance with the legal principles.

And, if such statements were formally and properly made, and were shown to be true, then the decision would have been legal, otherwise illegal.

This is how this method of validation of government decisions would have been used to justify the Falklands War:

ItemStatementTypeSource of Law / RelevanceSupportsDepends OnValidityReason
1The British Armed Forces should expel the Argentinian Armed forces from the Falkland Islands.Assertion.Proposed Government action.2, 3, 4Valid2, 3, and 4 are valid.
2The Argentinian Armed Forces had occupied the Falkland Islands.Statement of fact.The cause of the proposed action.1ValidAn existing (at the time) fact, provable by site inspection.
3The Falkland Islands is a British colony.Statement of fact.The British Government has the authority to protect its territories.1ValidA generally known existing fact, provable by site inspection and by numerous documents in public domain.
4Occupation of a territory belonging to government “A” by the armed forces of government “B” without a valid reason, gives a natural right to government “A” to expel the armed forces of government “B” from the occupied territory by military force.Statement of law.Natural Justice.1ValidIs a valid principle of Natural Justice.

The validation of the above statements would have been carried out by a judicial authority independent of the government.

As can be seen from the above, the proposed method makes it easy to establish validity of statements by governments. it makes scandals, controversies, and lengthy inquiries, which seldom produce any practical results, unnecessary. it will also help government officials to avoid mistakes and embarrassment.

Had the Blair government used this method to validate its decision to take part in the iraq war, it would have been able to establish the legality or illegality of the war, and the “controversy” would have been avoided.

And, to make sure that government as institution can be trusted, false or logically irrelevant statements by government officials should be penalized by 5 years imprisonment and disqualification from holding a public office for life.

So instead of transferring the prerogative to proclaim wars from the Prime Minister to the Parliament, one should implement measures which would help the prime minister and all the other government officials to make competent decisions and prevent them from failing in the exercise of their duties and from abusing their powers.

What objections has Gordon Brown to these proposals?

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