CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’ #13 – Elizabeth Wilmshurst (and Nick Harvey)

by Stephen Tall on September 7, 2012

ImageWelcome to the 13th in our series — Liberal Hero of the Week — as chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

The aim is to showcase public figures who help promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism. We highlight individuals regardless of their party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst

Former Deputy Legal Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who resigned on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 after the Labour Government ignored her advice that war would be illegal.
Reason: For sacrificing her career to defend the international rule of law on a point of principle.

Desmond Tutu’s trenchant call this week for Tony Blair to face trial before the international criminal court of The Hague over his decision to approve the use of British troops in the invasion of Iraq has raised once again the question of the war’s legality. Lots of public figures resigned in its immediate aftermath — from respected figures such as Robin Cook and the Director-General and Chairman of the BBC through to Piers Morgan — but one woman’s decision to sacrifice her career in protest emerged only two years later when her resignation letter was made public as a result of a Freedom of Information request.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst formally resigned her post on 18 March 2003, almost three decades after she joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, making sorrowfully clear her reasons:

“I cannot in conscience go along with advice – within the [Foreign] Office or or to the public or Parliament – which asserts the legitimacy of military action without [a second] resolution, particularly since an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression; nor can I agree with such action in circumstances which are so deterimental to the international order and rule of law.”

The nomination for her to be recognised as this week’s Liberal Hero comes from Toby Fenwick, who has written extensively on the issue of the war’s illegality, and the case for Tony Blair to face charges in court: ‘Rule of law and equality before the law are two cornerstones of our society: as a former PM Blair is not exempt, and he should be accountable for his actions in office.’

And here’s what Toby says of Elizabeth Wilmshurst:

In 2002-03, Ms Wilmshurst was the Foreign Office’s Deputy Legal Adviser, having joined the FCO as a lawyer in 1974. An international law expert, between 1994 and 1997 she was the Legal Adviser to the United Kingdom UN mission, where she was intimately involved in drafting Security Council Resolutions, and she later took part in the negotiations for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, where she was involved in negotiating the definition of the crime of aggression. In sacrificing her career to defend the international rule of law on a point of principle, Ms. Wilmshurst deserves our thanks and admiration.

Indeed.

Honourable mention: Nick Harvey, former Armed Forces minister

Politics is a harsh business. Until Monday Nick Harvey was a successful and highly able minister of state at the Defence department. Then came the reshuffle, and he found himself returning to the backbenches — not for doing his job badly, but for doing it too well. Overseeing the Trident nuclear weapons review on behalf of the Lib Dems, Nick has ensured the Coalition follows an evidence-based approach to the UK’s deterrent options while helping ensure a final decision on Trident renewal will not be taken this side of the 2015 general election. Meanwhile, the Trident Alternatives review Nick has spearheaded is doing exactly what its name suggests: challenging the relevance and cost-effectiveness of the posture of Continuous At Sea Deterrence, and identifying other robust, value-for-money options that can safeguard Britain’s defence without spending vastly more than we need on an outmoded defence system. And for more on what those options might be it’s worth reading Toby Fenwick’s CentreForum publication Dropping the bomb: a post Trident future (March 2012).

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.