International Law, Law, or War, War?

Jim Addington 

Why have leading politicians behaved in such a seemingly erratic fashion since September 11? The reason probably lies in the short-term approach that politicians display, especially in the current pseudo-democratic political systems. More than usual they have been making quick decisions just to get out of trouble. Having done so they have to justify their actions, maintain their stance as long as they are able, and then move on to a fall-back position or to a new direction.

The events of last September demanded action. Next day the US government went to the UN Security Council under Article 51 of the UN Charter which permits military action in self defence. The Council took the matter up, declared that it would take measures unspecified, said it "remained seized of the matter" - and did nothing.

Under the Charter action by the Council itself (or through designated member states) should follow such a statement. But the statement was taken by the US government to give it carte blanche to attack Afghanistan, one of the poorest states in the world. Military action, under the Charter, should only follow if the Council agrees to it.

Following a heavy high-level bombing campaign the US and allies took control of the capital, Kabul, and set up a nominal parliament. It is not known how much more of Afghanistan is under their control, or the total number of countries taking part, or what has happened to some two million refugees who fled their country into Iran and Pakistan. The media has apparently been silenced. British marines who were sent in to clean up after an American withdrawal have themselves been withdrawn, virtually without firing a shot.

Since September 11 the US President has threatened six states with pre-emptive attack, indicated altogether 60 states under suspicion, and made it plain that he would like to attack Iraq to take out Saddam Hussein. Any such attack would be illegal under the UN Charter; the UN Security Council would not agree to it.

Leaders of prominent UN member states are prepared to over-ride the Charter and the Security Council. Asked repeatedly whether he would support an attack on Iraq, Tony Blair has merely stated that nothing has been decided yet, although he has not condemned such a serious breach of international law.

George W.Bush and the UK defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, have said that they would not hesitate to order nuclear strikes in a conflict. This is contrary to previous US and British assurances that nuclear bombs are held as a deterrent. It destroys the myth of the Independent British Deterrent, which is under American control. Any limited logic in the use of Trident, with its enormous destructive power, cannot possibly extend to use as a tactical weapon for war-fighting. Britain has already boasted that it has discarded its tactical nuclear weapons.

Observers of the international scene are worried about the apparent collapse of international law. Contradictory statements made by leading politicians have been especially confusing. Since last September a basic theme of lawlessness has run through many of their pronouncements. In a situation in which they cannot invoke international law to support their actions there is a temptation to look for ways to act which, although not legal, may get them out of their current predicament.

Why have the NATO countries and the majority of other states worldwide given apparently unconditional support for Bush and his 'War on Terrorism' when the US itself stands accused of fomenting trouble within many other states and has a record of taking pre-emptive action in the past - Cuba, Libya, Panama, Grenada to name only a few? Is it due to the Bush demand, "you are either for us or you are against us" - no doubt together with a natural desire to oppose terrorism? The attack on Afghanistan, sanitised by the declaration that it was designed to remove the Taliban from control and release women from their burkas, had little logic because that country had not taken part in terrorist attacks. Nor did those who perpetrated the attacks on New York and Washington come form Pakistan, but from Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich ally of the United States.

There is no provision in international law for pre-emptive attacks. There have been many such attacks in the past but the practice of international law over the last century has shown that such actions are illegal. Nor does the UN Charter give any justification for any attack except in two instances. The first is self-defence, but the United States cannot claim to have been attacked by Iraq. The second is the part of the UN Charter that allows intervention if it is believed that a breach of the peace is threatened. But this has to be decided by the UN Security Council. Given the military strength of the United States the UN Security Council might find it difficult to impose effective sanctions. Certain powerful states have learnt that they can act without UN support, with no risk of punishment - although their leaders do not seem to have considered the future implications of their actions.

Bush and Blair support one sort of international court but not another. After the illegal attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 The US and Britain refused to answer accusations by that country at the International Court of Justice. Yet both the US and Britain not only support the International Tribunal at the Hague, which is now trying Milosevic, but the American government and other major American institutions are providing most of the money to finance that court. The new International Criminal Court, which may in due course replace the Tribunals, is strongly supported by Britain. As over 60 countries have now ratified it the Court will be established, not without the strongest opposition from the US government.

Some 190 countries comprise the membership of the UN General Assembly. The US has bases in 109 of them. Its privileged position in the Security Council enables it to dominate that body, which over the years has stolen precedence from the Assembly. One of most vital reforms of the UN, which could be established by the General Assembly if its members combined, is to strengthen the Assembly so that it can be restored to the dominant position originally

given to it in the UN Charter.


The author, Jim Addington, is Chair of Action for UN Renewal, a UK group which was formed by the merger last year of Renew UN and the Forum for UN Renewal. Among its aims is the conversion of the British government and parliamentarians to a proper respect and support for the United Nations.