My first piece on the Skripal case can be found here.
In her statement to the House of Commons on Monday 12th March, Theresa May spoke about Britain being “a nation that believes in justice and the rule of law” and went on to say that “it is essential that we proceed in the right way – led not by speculation but by the evidence.” She then proceeded both then, and in her subsequent statement on Wednesday 14th March, to act in a way that was led by speculation, rather than evidence, and which showed nothing but contempt for justice and the rule of law. As I hope to explain.
The day after her first statement on the issue to the House of Commons, Met Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, who is in charge of the police investigation, gave the following statement:
“This is an extremely challenging investigation. You will understand, the police and its partners have been dealing with a number of unique and complex issues.”
He then proceeded to list the known facts of the case, and it was clear from his statement that they had not yet established the following:
- What time Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned.
- Where they were poisoned.
- How they were poisoned.
Yet despite not having established these facts, each of which is absolutely crucial to understanding who might have been behind the incident, the Government went ahead and recklessly accused another country, on the basis of one apparent piece of evidence which, as I shall come to in a moment, does not stand up to reasonable scrutiny. In so doing, they have ridden roughshod over justice in three very important ways:
Firstly, they have now made a public accusation, without having many of the crucial facts at their disposal which would allow them to make such a claim. This shows their utter contempt for the rule of law.
Secondly, their accusations and their ultimatum were utterly at variance with Britain’s responsibilities as a member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which sets out very clearly in Article 9, Paragraph ii of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) how member states are to proceed if they require clarification from another member state on such matters of concern. After a request is made, the receiving State Party is given a maximum of 10 days to respond. By giving a 36 hour ultimatum, and by ignoring the correct channels, this again shows their contempt for the rule of law.
And thirdly, by making these very public accusations, and by circumventing the proper procedures, the British Government has prejudiced the investigation, politicised the case, and so made it almost impossible for a fair investigation to be held. Once again, this demonstrates their utter contempt for the rule of law.
In discarding these established legal principles, Mrs May and the Government she leads have now made it almost impossible for anyone who takes the rule of law seriously to give credence to their claims. Yes, there remains a possibility that the conclusion they have come to could be the right one, but their manner in coming to it should make any person with an inquiring mind suspicious of anything they have to say on the matter.
But it is not just the obvious contempt for law and due process that they have shown. There is much more, and it is crucial: It is the sheer speed at which this has been done.
Why have they acted so absurdly quickly? If, as they say, they have identified the poison as a Novichok and if, as they say, this makes it “highly probable” that the Russian state was responsible for the incident, why not wait until the rest of the investigation has been thoroughly completed before coming out with state level accusations? Why the hurry? Couldn’t they have kept calm and carried on, allowed the investigation to run, and then revealed the findings that back up their accusations in, say, a year’s time? Regardless of whether the Russian state was behind the poisoning, or whether they are mistaken in their conclusion, or even whether they ended up fabricating evidence to fit the conclusion they wanted to come to, they could surely have waited. But as it is, they chose not to act in this way at all, and instead with little more than a week having passed since the incident, an official accusation was made in the House of Commons (having already been unofficially made many times), and this was subsequently repeated two days later, this time together with various punitive measures. And so the “punishment” for the crime was meted out weeks before the investigation is likely to conclude.
There must be a reason for their acting in this needless and reckless manner, and no it isn’t anything to do with national security. One gets the impression that they were desperate to do something very quickly, and I would go as far as saying that this is the single most interesting clue in the case so far regarding motive (Note: I am saying it is an interesting clue, not that it in any way proves anything).
Of course, there will be many who will question this and will point to the identification of the nerve agent, which was apparently used. I’ll come to this in a moment, but let me first say this. I find it extremely ironic than many of the people who talk about the supposedly infallible science behind the identification of the substance, are the same people who then cheer the Government on in their reckless haste to apportion blame long before the other parts of the investigation have been concluded. What! No commitment to scientific inquiry when it comes to identifying suspects who carried out the poisoning? What! No commitment to scientific inquiry when it comes to establishing where the poisoning took place? What! No commitment to scientific inquiry when it comes to establishing how the poison was administered? Suddenly scientific inquiry is conspicuously absent, which goes to show that it is not actually scientific inquiry that is really driving such people to apportion blame at this stage in the investigation, but rather mere ideology and assumptions, with “science” acting simply as the fig leaf covering them.
But what of the nerve agent itself? In a very important post, Britain’s former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, quotes the following passage from a paper written in 2016 by Dr. Robin Black, Head of the Detection Laboratory at Porton Down, the chemical weapons facility just outside of Salisbury, which was the site where the nerve agent apparently used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter, was identified:
“In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.”
So according to one of Porton Down’s most senior scientists as recently as two years ago, there was no independent evidence that the Novichok programme was successful. Indeed the OPCW released a statement on 16th March 2018 saying that there was still:
“No record of the Novichok group of nerve agents having been declared by a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
Since his piece, Mr Murray has since written a rather jaw-dropping piece, in which he says the following:
“I have now received confirmation from a well-placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve gas as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation “of a type developed by Russia” after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation. The Russians were allegedly researching, in the “Novichok” programme a generation of nerve agents which could be produced from commercially available precursors such as insecticides and fertilisers. This substance is a “novichok” in that sense. It is of that type. Just as I am typing on a laptop of a type developed by the United States, though this one was made in China.”
So according to his account, all Porton Down scientists have been able to ascertain is that the nerve agent apparently used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, was “of a type developed by Russia.” Which is of course about as nebulous as it gets, yet is the stock phrase that was then used by Theresa May in her speech to the House of Commons on 14th March, and in subsequent statements made by Boris Johnson, by the UK Ambassador to the United Nations, and by the Governments of the UK, US, France and Germany in their joint communique of 15th March 2018.
What does this mean? Well, if Mr Murray’s account is correct, then not only have scientists at Porton Down not been able to establish with any certainty where this particular nerve agent was produced, but they have been pressured by the Government to say that they do know where it came from, but have refused to do so. But it is important to note that even if his claim of pressure being put on scientists is incorrect, that actually doesn’t alter the conclusion one jot. For even if a lab could ascertain the structures or the properties of a nerve agent, it still cannot say with any certainty where it originated from.
And yet the British Government, well aware that the scientists at Porton Down are unable and, it seems, unwilling to say with certainty where the substance was manufactured, within days of the incident and before any of the most crucial facts of the case had been established, used this incredibly slippery phrase — “of a type developed in Russia” — as the sole basis with which to accuse a country with an enormous nuclear capability of a heinous crime and to use this as a pretext to impose sanctions.
Truly I tell you, Reckless and Lawless is their name.
I note that the Russian Investigative Committee (RIC) has opened an investigation into the alleged poisoning of Yulia Skripal. That’s a very interesting move. She of course is a Russian national, and presumably that means that under international conventions, there will be a legal obligation for Britain to share information on her case with the RIC. Things could get very embarrassing very quickly for the British Government.