An Attack on Iraq Would Be Illegal


Jim Addington explains why

A new war on Iraq will cause immense suffering, especially as its basic infrastructure is in shreds after 11 years of punitive sanctions. In December 2002 five leading British aid agencies including Christian Aid and Oxfam drew attention to the illegality of an attack on Iraq under the Geneva Conventions because it would endanger the lives of the Iraqi population through further damage to the country's infrastructure.

A recent visit to Iraq by aid agencies has confirmed that the water and sanitation system is on the verge of collapse. Yet, unbelievably, the United States and British governments are poised to begin a war as immoral and illegal as that perpetrated by Hitler on Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939.

The five Agencies, based in Britain, said that any attack on Iraq would breach the Geneva Conventions' Article 54 of Additional Protocol 1. This prohibits attacks on "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population". These would include ports, roads, railways and power lines. The Protocol adds "In no event shall actions against these objects be taken which may be expected to leave the civilian population with such inadequate food and water as to cause its starvation or its movement".

Those who intend to attack will already be aware that they can expect mass movement of refugees as this is the usual effect of a major onslaught. We must be prepared, as in the Kosovo war, for accusations from the US and UK governments that Saddam Hussein has caused a mass exodus. Last week UNICEF, and UNHCR, the UN organisation for refugees, warned that resources were inadequate for the relief demands anticipated. UNHCR has already suffered a 25% cut in its Budget for 2002. No doubt after this war it will again be criticised by the media - as it was after the Kosovo war - for not being ready.

Clare Short, Minister for Development, as already expressed her fears of the effect of the expected war. She told MPs "Some of these plans will bring devastating problems to all the people of the Middle East. :Let us try to avoid that being the contingency with which we have to live".

If a major war would be illegal under the Geneva Conventions it would also contravene the United Nations Charter. We should ask the government of British forces' units have been notified of Queens' Regulations, the official code which protects individual service-people against unlawful orders from their superior officers. Every member of the forces should consider whether to take part in active war service against Iraq which in the present circumstances would be lawful.

The UN Charter - Article 2 section 4 - instructs all national UN member states that "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state..."

Article 39 (chapter 7) also lays down that "The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression..."

An attack on Iraq without the support of a UN Security Council Resolution would be an act of aggression. It would be illegal under the UN Charter because after 11 years Iraq poses no threat to the peace, is not guilty of a breach of the peace, and has committed no act of aggression since 1990.

Furthermore, even if supported by a further UN Security Council resolution, an attack on Iraq would be illegal under the UN Charter because a pre-emptive attack for the purpose of regime change cannot legitimately be authorised under the UN Charter. That is concerned with keeping the peace, not breaking it.

Those who intend to attack must be aware that they can expect mass movement of refugees as this is the usual effect of a major onslaught.

British servicemen and women would also be in danger of prosecution by the International Criminal Court, which was established with strong British government support. It is unlikely that any government would be able to protect military servicepeople arrested abroad and charged with criminal acts.

Jim Addington is chair of the UK organisation Action for UN Renewal.