19 July 2007

Philippe Sands - Lawless World

Philippe Sands is an international lawyer, a QC, and a barrister at Matrix Chambers, where Cherie Booth practises. He is highly respected and renowned for his experience and expertise, having helped to negotiate many international treaties, including Kyoto, and being currently a Professor at UCL. He is thus a very competent and trustworthy guide to the basics of international law, from the Atlantic Charter to Kyoto.

This book, subtitled 'The whistle-blowing account of how Bush and Blair are taking the law into their own hands', analyses the ways in which the Bush administration have subverted international law, in multiple areas, which has led them into a war without legitimacy, and to lose the respect, trust and cooperation of much of the international community, notably excluding Britain.

Sands's style is very clear, he's pitched this to a lay audience, and is very aware that it needs to be led through the issues under discussion, and he does that as you'd expect a law professor might. Despite his obvious underlying frustration with the US administration, this book isn't a polemic, and his own views rarely surface. This is a dissection of where the US have acted in breach of international laws and treaties, and the problems consequent upon those actions, refreshingly free of speculation or hyperbole.

He opens the book with the story of the attempted extradition from England of General Pinochet by a Spanish prosecutor, for offences against Spaniards committed while he was leader of Chile. This is relevant because it was found that Pinochet's state immunity didn't apply for offences with international import, such as torture or genocide. The decision, by the British law lords, had great resonance, particularly in America where ideas of sovereignty of the state outweigh those of international cooperation. There certain political leaders, past and present, were offended by the idea that they could be held to account by a foreign court for crimes committed in the service of the USA. Attention focused on Henry Kissinger, particularly for his known complicity in the Chilean coup of 1973, but events since the Pinochet case have exposed other civilian leaders to this risk.

This leads into America's opposition to the International Criminal Court. While I was aware of that stance, there's a lot in this book I didn't know, such as the USA's withholding of military aid to any country who assists with the ICC. This blackmail has been effective for smaller states, although it hasn't been applied to countries such as Britain, who have backed the ICC vigorously. Sands shows how the USA's opposition is paranoid and inaccurate - there are safeguards to prevent rogue prosecutors from launching speculative actions - and how the ICC has been demonised by deliberate misinformation as it runs counter to a neocon philosophy of American supremacy.

Subsequent chapters, on Kyoto and trade deals, are informed by Sands's involvement in negotiating treaties and acting on behalf of countries in court cases, but he never puts himself at the centre of the discussion, and uses his examples to illuminate the issues. He shows how the US will use international law where it suits them - in trade, most notably, where they recognise the future advantages of being seen to abide by multilateral rules.

But the meat of this book is in the chapters dealing with Iraq. There is a forensic analysis of how the Security Council was bypassed, which was known at the time - I remember railing against it with much the same information that Sands presents here - but which has been much forgotten since. The argument is as follows:

1. The US had decided to invade Iraq to get rid of Saddam. The motivations for this are various, and not immediately relevant.
2. An unprovoked war is an international crime, of aggression, so the pretext they used was that Saddam was an immediate or imminent threat to the US or its allies, due to its ongoing WMD weapons programme.
3. In order to get international sanction for this, the US proceeded through the Security Council, expecting, it seemed, that Hans Blix would discover WMDs and justify their action.
4. SC resolution 1441 bound Iraq to comply with the investigation, and that serious (but, crucially undetermined) consequences would follow non-compliance.
5. Specifically, and I remember this clearly from news reports at the time, SC member countries were assured that 1441 had 'no trigger points' and 'no automaticity' - the words of John Negroponte, the US Ambassador to the UN. Countries voted for the resolution explicitly on this basis, that they would have another discussion as to sanctions or action required if Iraq didn't comply. This is critical.
6. There was an attempt to get a second resolution, for war, which failed, despite frantic efforts.
7. The US and British governments decided that the second resolution wasn't needed after all - so why did they go to such efforts to secure it? - and that 1441 was sufficient - even though the countries who voted for it had been explicit that they weren't agreeing to war. This is so transparent, it's incredible that none of the MPs that voted for war raised the point.
8. Hans Blix's final report before the war was that Iraq was complying with their investigations, and that no WMDs had been found. All the same, Tony Blair decided that Iraq was in material breach of its obligations, despite the fact it wasn't his call - it was up to the Security Council to make that judgement.

In order to back up his decision, Blair relied upon the Attorney General's opinion, which Sands savages, with lawyerly rapier cuts, as being inconsistent with previous opinions, and plainly influenced at the last minute by US pressure. He spends a whole chapter on this, such is its importance - many MPs wouldn't have voted for war had there not been such an opinion, and the Chief of the Defence Staff insisted on it.

There are other chapters on Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the torture policy of the US, which, coincidentally, Bush announced yesterday. He shows how the argument that the President can authorise any means necessary to pursue America's wars, as Commander in Chief, is not only contrary to international treaties that the US is party to, but could also be used to justify genocide. It is contrary to the Geneva Conventions, which Alberto Gonzalez, then the White House Counsel, now, frighteningly, Attorney General, despite his manifest incompetence and lack of independence, dismissed as irrelevant, and the 1984 UN Convention against Torture.

The US, belatedly, is seeing how its lack of concern for these fundamental treaties has affected its reputation, and more importantly legitimacy around the world. Moral credibility is critical when trying to establish relationships and influence in hostile areas, and the US has lost a lot due to bull-headed and near-sighted officials and advisers. It seems that they are recognising the damage this has done, although Bush's announcement yesterday is still the US interpreting the Geneva Conventions for their own convenience, when they are non-negotiable. The test is - would they accept other countries, such as Syria, freely interpreting or ignoring the Geneva Conventions?

This is an excellent book, of great clarity and rigour, which shows just how important it is that the leaders of the world abide by the rules their forbears established.


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