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First published in  The Telegraph
War in Iraq
January 21, 2011

Iraq War: We must move on from questions of legality

The UN should not be vested with legal or moral 'authority'

George Grant

Today, Tony Blair finds himself before Sir John Chilcot and the Iraq Inquiry, to account for his decision to take Britain to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Many people, and not just loonies like George Galloway, will feel that it is not an inquiry he should be sitting before, but a judge in a dock; preferably one in Holland. The charge levelled against Mr Blair is that he, spurred on by President Bush, took Britain into an “illegal war”.

Make absolutely no mistake, there are a very large number of very good reasons to have vigorously opposed the Iraq war: the unconvincing rationale for going in; the failure to focus on post-conflict reconstruction; ignorance of sectarian divisions; and the diversion of resources and attention away from Afghanistan to name just a few, but let’s move beyond this nonsense about whether the invasion was “legal” or “illegal”.

For the question that almost nobody seems to be asking themselves before deciding whether or not the war’s supposed illegality should actually be sufficient cause for righteous opprobrium is, “according to whom?”

According to the United Nations, that’s who – and therein lies the problem. Even if we accept the premise that the UN can make legally binding decisions – and the international jury is still very much out on that – we should also be asking ourselves whether or not the United Nations should be vested with such legal, and as importantly, moral authority.

The United Nations was founded during the darkest hours of the Second World War, as a coalition of states united against Fascism and all it stood for. Members were united not only by a common moral purpose, but also by their readiness to situate their money where their mouth was, and put their principles into practice.

This is a very far cry from the United Nations as we now know it. Whilst it retains the same, seemingly infallible moral authority that it always had, membership is nowadays conditional upon being a state that exists on planet earth and/or not being Taiwan. This is a dangerous and logically incoherent combination.

In short, today’s UN possesses a moral authority that its composition simply does not warrant. The majority of its members are non-democracies whose respect for human rights, the rule of law, and the laudable principles upon which the United Nations was founded is dubious at best.

Indeed, for any non-defensive conflict to be considered legal in today’s international legal framework it requires the approval of Russia and China, two permanent and veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, the most powerful organ of the United Nations, and the only one whose decisions are legally-binding.

To argue that these two countries have a sincere desire “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person… [and] to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” would be laughable if only it weren’t a joke.

The UN Human Rights Council, meanwhile, counts Libya, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Angola amongst its most august members.

This is not the organisation that members of the public should look to when deciding whether a conflict is right or wrong. Let’s not forget that, according to this criterion, both NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 were illegal, but there aren’t many right-minded people condemning those.

There are many good reasons to have opposed the Iraq war, and to criticise Tony Blair for leading Britain into it, but the fact that the United Nations didn’t proffer its stamp of approval should not be one of them.


George Grant

About George Grant

George Grant was a non-resident Associate Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society. Between 2009-2012 George was a full-time Research Fellow at HJS, before moving to Libya to become Deputy Editor of the Libya Herald, the first post-Gaddafi English-language daily, and Libya Correspondent for The Times. He returned to the UK at the start of 2013 owing to an abduction threat received following an investigation he was conducting into a death list in Benghazi. His most recent report, In Scotland's Defence? An Assessment of SNP Defence Strategy, provides a comprehensive analysis of the Scottish National Party's proposals for how they would defend an independent Scotland. A frequent contributor to mainstream newspapers and broadcasters, including the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and the BBC, George has also given briefings and evidence to Parliamentary Select Committees, UK Government departments and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the fields of foreign policy, strategy and defence. George holds Masters degrees in History from the University of Edinburgh and Investigative Journalism from City University, London. He is a keen squash player and runner, and an active member of his local Church in Wimbledon.

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