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Haditha Ethics - From Iraq to Iran?

The Spokesman, 91


International Lawlessness

Philippe Sands, Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules, Penguin Books, 432 pages, paperback ISBN 0141017996 £8.99


For more than a century, international law has been steadily developing. The process is charted in this book by Philippe Sands, a well-known international lawyer. One of its earliest landmarks was the 1899 Hague Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war and the distinction between combatants and noncombatants.  The establishment of the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was an important milestone on the road. The Atlantic Charter, formulated by United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in 1941, was a precursor of the Charter of the United Nations, approved at San Francisco in 1945. A world system, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and numerous other amplifications, by different conventions, followed.


Under the UN Charter, countries agreed to refrain from the use of force except for the purpose of self-defence or when authorised by the international community, through the Security Council. Institutions were established and agreements made which were related to world trade and development, for example, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organisation.


US and British politicians were prominent in the development of the system and frequently claimed it reflected the democratic values on which their countries were based. This did not prevent them, or later political leaders, bending or ignoring the rules. No one has, however, flouted them more flagrantly than President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Philippe Sands meticulously documents and analyses their behaviour in this book.


He shows how the war initiated by American and British forces in Iraq was illegal under the UN Charter and quotes the usually compliant Secretary General, Kofi Annan, as saying so in September 2004. Tony Blair, who stated that Britain would only act within the limits of international law, realised the need for a new Security Council resolution to justify the invasion and, from November 2002 to March 2003, went to inordinate lengths to get one. The dropping of criminal proceedings against Katherine Gun, a translator, for leaking to The Observer an e-mail instruction to bug Chilean and Mexican diplomats, who represented swing states on the Security Council, indicated a desire not to rehash this in public (p. 201).


When efforts to get the second resolution failed, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, appears to have been pressurised to make a statement giving legal backing for the war, despite having advised previously that regime change would not be legal. Elizabeth Wilmshurst (Foreign Office Deputy Legal Advisor) resigned, as she could not agree that a second resolution was not required to legitimate military action (p. 189).


In addition to challenging the legality of the war, Philippe Sands considers the ill-treatment meted out to detainees at Guantánamo and at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and argues that it breaches both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1984 Convention against Torture. He then describes the various means by which efforts have been made to justify what has been done.


President Bush has denied that detainees were prisoners of war and, therefore, that they were covered by the Geneva Conventions. The CIA was authorised to set up detention centres outside the United States so that they were not subject to American law. Richard Perle, a neo-conservative advisor, contended that, after 9/11, international law needed to be refashioned (p. 20).


Despite blatant infringements of international law, however, official representatives of the United States and of Britain still try to claim that they uphold the system. Condoleezza Rice, at the international meeting of the American Society of International Law on 1st April 2005, declared that the United States ‘… has been and will continue to be the world’s strongest voice for the development and defence of international legal norms’ (p. 254).


This book not only exposes the barefaced hypocrisy of such statements; it also systematically destroys the arguments of those who have sought to justify the US and British military intervention in Iraq and associated policies as in conformity with international law. For those of us who opposed Saddam Hussein when the West was supporting him, and for the anti-war movement as a whole, it is an invaluable source which all who wish to argue the case against military intervention should read and absorb.


Stan Newens



Independent News Collective


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