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Question on international law

I got the following email from a member of the list asking about some
comments in my last news report. With her permission I'm circulating the
question and my reply:

Hi Peter
Ive just got a couple of questions regarding a couple of articles you have
posted this week. I hope you dont mind my ignorance and naivity in posing
them, as my knowledge of sanction details is rather recent and still in its
early days. I hope you can shed more light on these:

1- *  Powell expands list of facilities in Iraq that may be bombed
Would I be terribly mistaken in believing that the US is unlawfully bombing
these sites against international laws that should protect Iraqs
sovereignty? The no fly zones are not lawful and imposed by the Us and the
UK. Surely these countries regardless of whether they are in the Security
Council can and should be made accountable internationally for such

2- Learning to live with a nuclear Iraq [This, I think, is probably the most
interesting article of the week. It comes from the Israeli journal,

Ive attended a day at the CASI conference here in Cambridge which included a
speaker who is apparently well informed about the nuclear situation in IRaq.
Neither his talk nor a documentary recently screened by the BBC here have
managed to convince me that there are serious capabilies left for the
manufacture and use of such weapons. How believable are the German reports
regarding this and do you have any primary sources that I can read on this

Thanks for your help with some information regarding the two topics. Im
sorry if they appear a bit too obvious to you or naive, but as I said Im new
to this and Im still trying to find out more about the situation.

Many thanks,
Cambridge , UK.


Dear mm

Thanks for the email. I don¹t at all mind trying to answer the points you
make. I think that¹s what our discussion group is for, forcing us to think
out the perhaps rather half baked thoughts we all have going through our
minds ...

With regard to your first point about the no fly zones being illegal, I had
made the point in my introductory remarks about the Chinese that nothing any
permanent member of the Security Council does can be Œillegal¹. It is true
that Boutros Ghali has said that these no fly zones were illegal, ie they
were not sanctioned by a UN Security Council resolution. But Kofi Annan has
said that only the UN Security Council itself has the right to pronounce
authoritatively on its own resolutions and since each of the permanent
members can veto any interpretation they don¹t like, any interpretation that
any of the five members choose to make remains valid, even if they
contradict each other.

Let me try to say how I see this general business of Œinternational law¹.

A court of law only really counts if its authority is respected and it has
the power to enforce its decisions.

The body which should be at the centre of international law is the World
Court at the Hague. It is effective when two countries turn to it
voluntarily for arbitration, agreeing in advance to accept its findings. It
does not have the means to enforce its rulings against a country which does
not accept them.

The outstanding example of this was its ruling that the United States acted
illegally in mining the ports of Nicaragua in the early 1980s ­ a truly and
deeply outrageous act which everyone now seems to have forgotten. The US
treated the World Court¹s ruling with contempt (Congress in reaction voted
to increase its subsidies to the anti-government guerrillas, not to say
Œterrorists¹, in Nicaragua).

Though that contempt may have been less deep than it appeared. They may even
have been a little shaken. I am persuaded that one of the reasons for
setting up the International War Crimes Tribunal on ex-Yugoslavia in the
Hague was a desire to undermine the authority of the World Court by
replacing it in the public imagination with a kangaroo court that is under
US control.

The only international force that can intervene to impose Œinternational
law¹ on a country which does not wish to observe it is the UN. The UN can
only act on the instructions of the UN Security Council (at least that is
the case now that the US has a fair degree of control over the UN Council.
At the time of the Korean war the UN General Assembly was given a degree of
authority but since the US lost control over it its authority has been taken
away. One wonders why it bothers to meet).

On the UN Security Council, as mentioned before, the five permanent members
­ the US, China, Russia, France and Britain (in order of their importance
and of the respect they command internationally) ­ each exercise a veto. So
the UN Security Council can never pass a resolution that is displeasing to
one of those members. Consequently all five of them are Œabove the law¹.
Even if the World Court found against one of them nothing could be done
about it. The system is particularly iniquitous when we remember that these
are the five biggest arms producers, and therefore war profiteers, in the

The system does have the advantage that it is difficult for the US to use
the UN mechanism to its own advantage. The catastrophe which hit Iraq was a
consequence of the exceptional weakness of Russia at the time. However, the
case of Serbia has shown that the US does not need the fig leaf of
Œinternational law¹ to act. Although, after Nicaragua, Grenada and Panama
(without going back to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) that hardly needed any

The Serbs, incidentally, tried to bring the US before the World Court at the
Hague (the real one) on a charge of Œgenocide¹. They thought they could do
this because the US had actually signed an international convention
outlawing genocide. In the event, however, only a day or so before President
Milosevic capitulated, the Court ruled that it could not hear the case. It
appears that when the US ratified the convention on genocide they only did
so on condition that a codicil was added specifying that they, the US ,
could never be prosecuted under it. The world took this little revelation,
as it has so many others like it, manfully on the chin.

My conclusion from all this is that those countries which do not have the
benefit of exemption from Œinternational law¹ (ie all the countries in the
world other than the Permanent Five) should refuse any longer to tolerate or
co-operate with the system. They should simply refuse to treat the security
Council and its decisions with respect. For example they should
systematically and publicly refuse to obey its commands on the subject of
sanctions. The best thing would be for everyone simply ­ on a much bigger
scale than is happening at the present time ­ to ignore the sanctions that
have been put in place against Iraq. And they should rally round the World
Court (the real one) and the UN Secretary General (whether he likes it or
not) as potential alternative centres of world authority.

The slogan should simply be Œequality under the law¹, which is a very
American slogan. The curious thing is that the US (and the rest of us), in
sitting above the law, is behaving in a way which could only be justified in
a monarchical order, though the monarchical order only makes sense in a
religious context in which authority comes Œfrom above¹. So the US in
international affairs adopts a political philosophy which is the exact
reverse of that which it proclaims in its domestic affairs, and it really
shouldn¹t be impossible to bring that point forcibly home to the American

With regard to your other point about the German Secret service, the BND,
and Iraq¹s nuclear capabilities.

I, of course, have no idea how close or how far away Iraq is from having a
nuclear bomb. I have every reason to distrust the BND. It seems to me that
the German government feels within an ace of casting off the military
tutelage it has been living under since the end of the 1939 war. The prize
of once again having an independent military existence in the world is
within their grasp, and there has even being talk of Germany becoming a
permanent member of the Security Council and thus hoisting itself above the
law (the main grounds for this proposal appear to be that they combine the
two virtues of being rich and white). They are, under the circumstances,
anxious to show themselves devoted and zealous servants of the New World
Order. Under Kohl they were doing this while still maintaining some
semblance of dignity. But under Schroeder and Fischer all restraint has been
thrown to the winds. The US want something said in public - the German
Secret Service will fall over themselves to say it (what business is Iraq¹s
military capacity of theirs anyway, we might wonder).

However, Iraq is a country surrounded by deadly and very heavily armed
enemies. If (as we all know now. It was more difficult to establish it at
the time) Iraq started the Iran/Iraq war, the Iranian revolution still posed
a very real threat to Iraq. And for most of the war the Iranians were
heavily present on Iraqi territory. We may hope that Bashir Assad is an
improvement on his father but Syria¹s support for Iran and cutting off of
the Iraq/Syrian pipelines was still a very shocking (and still largely
unexplained) breach of Arab solidarity. Turkey is currently invading Iraqi
territory on a regular basis. Israel, in what would have been a flagrant
breach of international law if there was such a thing, bombed Iraq in the
eighties, while Iraq was defending the whole area against the fundamentalist
Shia hordes. When Iraq was in a state of exhaustion and economic collapse
after the war, Kuwait decided to profit from the situation by delivering an
economic coup de grace to the Iraqi economy. The country is all the more
vulnerable because of the internal divisions we all know so well. These may
have been very badly handled by the Ba¹ath rulers, but no-one else, not
least the British when they were in charge, has done much better.

So, much more  than the US and Britain, who are not threatened by anyone and
don¹t need much in the way of a defensive capacity, the Iraqi government,
whoever is in charge, needs to be heavily armed. And after all they have
been through they surely must feel the need for some sort of convincing
deterrent. After all, we think we need a nuclear deterrent don¹t we? Can Mr
Blair think of a single argument  for our deterrent which wouldn¹t apply a
hundred times more to Iraq?

We have killed something in the order of a million people on the pretext of
preventing ŒSaddam¹ from getting a bomb. Our idea is that if ŒSaddam¹ had a
bomb, a catastrophe would ensue ­ as if the systematic murder by starvation
and disease of a million people was not catastrophe enough. What I admired,
and still admire, about the Ha¹aretz article was its willingness to live
with the possibility that ŒSaddam¹ might have a bomb. I prefer that attitude
to our usual plaint that Œsanctions aren¹t working and Saddam isn¹t anywhere
near getting a bomb¹. Which seems to me to contain a certain element of
contradiction ...

Best wishes


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