Taking a country to war is the single most solemn international responsibility of any government. It requires our soldiers to kill complete strangers solely on the authority of the government. It puts their lives on the line. Death and serious injury to the soldiers can mean broken dreams and shattered futures for their families. It can leave families and entire villages traumatised in countries where the fighting takes place. It may sow bitter hatred among peoples and create foreign enemies for generations. It can inspire acts of terror against Australian people and symbols. This is why war must always be the option of last resort and must never be chosen lightly.
In modern democratic Western societies, whenever the use of force in the line of duty by a police officer results in a death, a full inquiry is conducted by competent authorities for an independent determination as to whether the action was justified and how such a tragedy might be avoided in future.
For the rule of international law to be consolidated and entrenched, it may be helpful for democratic countries to adopt an analogous policy with respect to war. That is, at a reasonable time after choosing to go to war, an independent inquiry by competent authorities should be conducted to review the decision and draw appropriate conclusions on justification, preparations and outcomes.
Since 1945, the UN has spawned a corpus of law to stigmatise aggression and create a robust norm against it. Of course, countries retain the right to use military force in individual or collective self-defence. That was not the case in 2003. Although proponents might still want to justify it on the grounds that it rid Iraq and the world of Saddam Hussein, the war was illegal. Only the UN, not individual states, had the right to decide to enforce any Iraqi breach of UN resolutions.
Iraq was neither implicated in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, nor was it threatening to attack any neighbouring country. In October 2004, the CIA's Iraq Survey Group reported with finality that while Saddam Hussein had harboured ambitions to get weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi programs to build them had decayed completely. UN sanctions had helped to dismantle them and UN inspections had given an accurate assessment of Saddam's WMD non-capability.
Against this backdrop, Australia needs to conduct an honest and independent inquiry to establish why the country was taken to war in 2003. The purpose of the inquiry should not be to judge or punish those involved in that decision. Rather, the purpose should be to take stock of the process of decision-making on this most solemn responsibility in order to improve it. Only this will enhance the prospects of improved policy in the future, as Australia will assuredly find itself confronting the same challenge again of whether to go to war or not.
There are several reasons why an inquiry would be timely, if not overdue. First, 2013 will mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Iraq War. A decade on is a good time to reflect back on the reasons, circumstances and decision-making procedures by which a country went to any war.
Second, there is by now widespread, although not unanimous, international agreement that the Iraq War was morally wrong, illegal, unjustified and had many seriously damaging consequences for Western interests. The primary justification for going to war was to destroy an alleged active program of building weapons of mass destruction. This has been proven false. In 2008 former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said that the invasion of Iraq was ''the greatest disaster in American foreign policy'', worse even than Vietnam in its unintended consequences. We need to study the long-term consequences of the war for Australia's security interests.
Third, prime minister John Howard committed Australia to war by citing the ANZUS Treaty. Yet the Iraq War may itself have been in violation of Australia's international obligations under ANZUS. Its Article 1 obligates all members to settle any international disputes ''by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations''. Australia must reconcile its ANZUS and UN obligations.
Fourth, Britain has had several Iraq War-related inquiries, including one which is yet to report. An all-encompassing inquiry into Australia's involvement in the Iraq War therefore would be following in the footsteps of ''the mother of parliamentary democracies'', not setting a precedent.
Fifth, since 2003 the international community has for the first time agreed to a definition of aggression under the amended Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Australia must carefully study the implications of this and draw the right lessons from the Iraq War for future calls to arms that could expose its political leaders and military commanders to ICC criminal prosecution.
Sixth, next year Australia will also commence disengaging from military combat operations in Afghanistan. Because of the geographical and chronological proximity of Iraq and Afghanistan, an inquiry could benefit from considering the two experiences together, including the difficult question of to what extent the Iraq War undermined the prospects for success in Afghanistan.
Seventh, the Middle East region remains as tense as ever, with the volatile situation in Syria and the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program threatening to descend into internal, regional and/or international war at short notice. Some commentators also perceive Australia as being drawn into a US-led strategy of containment of China in the Pacific. This too has considerable potential to flare up into inter-state conflict that could entangle Australia. It would be difficult to conduct a thorough and satisfactory inquiry into a past war in the midst of a new war. It is better to study the lessons now when we still can: both to avoid another war if we can, and to conduct it after due diligence and democratic accountability if we cannot.
Finally, Australia has been campaigning for and is cautiously hopeful of being elected to a two-year term on the UN Security Council in 2013-2014. This will put extra responsibility on Australia as a member of that key international law enforcement body to reaffirm its war-making authority and competence, and also to make sure that we have drawn the hard lessons from a previous flawed war.
Professor Thakur is at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and adjunct professor, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University. He is a member of the Iraq War Inquiry Group (http://www.iraqwarinquiry.org.au).