Are the US and Britain be within their legal rights to invade Iraq? The second in our series of chatrooms tackles their motives and the nature of the UN debate
Eleanor Cochrane started chat about the legality of going to war against Iraq
>>> Nick Henchie joined the chat
>>> Robert Akenhead joined the chat
>>> Rudi Klein joined the chat

Eleanor Cochrane Would you like to start the discussion Rudi? We are all here to discuss the legality of a war against Iraq.

Rudi Klein I have grave difficulty in accepting that there is a legal imperative for war against Iraq in the absence of a) UN approval and b) an Iraqi invasion of another state or a direct threat to our own country.

Robert Akenhead The problem with the UN is that the veto system means the so-called major powers can pursue their own agenda, which undermines its validity as an institution.

Rudi I agree. I am keen that Saddam should be indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. A few years ago the UN Security Council created criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia but there was no agreement to do this in respect of Iraq. It is interesting that this was vetoed by France and Russia, both of which have ties of friendship as well as economic ties with Iraq.

Nick Henchie Yes, the UN is also undermined by conflicts of interest. France has a clear conflict of interest given its commercial links with Iraq. The whole decision-making process is tainted with self-interest.

Eleanor Is America actually acting legally?

Robert There is no doubt that Iraq is in serious breach of earlier UN resolutions. As a lawyer one could argue with almost equal force that the USA is entitled to go into Iraq (delivering the serious consequences promised in the earlier resolution) or that a further resolution is required (to spell out what those serious consequences should be).

Nick There is an argument that resolution 1441 legally entitles war to be commenced – serious consequences clearly meant war didn't it?

Rudi The difficulty is that it is doubtful whether individual nations can take action to enforce UN resolutions on their own initiative without the backing of the Security Council. After the First World War, a body was set up to oversee the disarmament of Germany. It didn't work because the German government frustrated the efforts of the monitors. However, France at one point did take unilateral action against Germany to enforce the process, so I think there is a precedent.

Robert The problem with institutions like the UN is enforceability: from time immemorial rulers and governments have done what they want and there comes a time when a country must be entitled to act against another where its basic national interests are at stake. If an institution like the UN does not enforce its own resolutions what else can it do? Otherwise a country like Iraq can cock a snook at the rest of the world.

Rudi In using force to enforce UN resolutions there will be many arguing that we should also be using force against other countries that have disobeyed the UN, such as Israel and North Korea.

Eleanor So, does America have to argue that it feels threatened by Saddam Hussein?

Rudi The US may argue that the Iraqi situation does threaten its interests, particularly in the Middle East. It has friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, economic interests, and most importantly it might be threatened by the possible development of a nuclear arsenal by Saddam.

Robert The problem with justifying war or an invasion on the grounds that one feels threatened by another country's actual or assumed behaviour is that the world would descend even more into anarchy. At the end of the day, power talks, justified or not.

Rudi I would prefer that we had a clear moral imperative for taking action against Saddam. This should be directed at his crimes against humanity. The UN has not been very good at intervening where regimes commit crimes against humanity within their own countries. For example, it was Nato that went to the aid of people in Kosovo.

Nick Is this really all about oil? I see that the first strategy on invasion is to secure the oil fields.

Rudi The general public has received confused signals about the reasons for a possible war with Iraq. Oil has been one suggestion but there have been others such as the danger posed to Israel. In the UN, the US has relied on failure by Iraq to abide by UN resolutions and the UK has identified Saddam's human rights abuses as a pretext. So what are we to believe? That's why I come back to my earlier point – I feel that the public would support a change of regime involving the capture of Saddam so that the people of Iraq are saved from further abuse. The role of the UN should then be to set up a special tribunal to try Saddam and his henchmen for crimes against humanity.

Robert Numerous leaders have escaped justice – Idi Amin and Mengistu for example. The latest international court set up only a few days ago could not try Saddam Hussein. Milosevic is the exception in the last 55 years since Nüremberg. But if Saddam survives a war and is captured – a big if – then there can be no doubt that he should be brought before an appropriate tribunal and tried at least for the invasion of Kuwait and the use of poison gas against the Kurds.

To always bring it back to a legal context is artificial. Can it ever be justified legally to kill innocent people? The debate at the UN is not a legal one, though that is how it is dressed up for the public

Nick The reality of this is that it is a very difficult question. To always try to bring it back to a legal context is artificial. How can it ever be justified legally to kill innocent people? What is going on is not a legal debate at the UN although that is how it is dressed up for public relation reasons.

Rudi Unfortunately, the killing of innocent people in pursuit of actions justified by international law is legal. What we are coming to is, perhaps, more of a debate about international law itself. International law is supposed to be the embodiment of what is generally perceived to be moral. The crux of the issues under discussion is that in 2003 we have not – in international terms – developed an effective method of dealing with bandit states that not only abuse their own people but, because of the weaponry they possess, pose a threat to law-abiding democratic nations.

Robert I agree with you, and what does one do? Set up an effective international army backed up by an effective decision-making process? Rudi The answer might be to develop the powers of the international criminal court so that it can indict individuals or whole governments for human rights abuses or waging aggressive wars. It would then invite countries to take action to bring the individuals to face justice.

Robert Most states in the world, in particular the Arab world, would like to see the end of Saddam Hussein. Currently the political and legal institutions lack the will or the power to deal with rogue states or their leaders, promptly or at all in some cases.

Nick Many states in the Muslim world would like to see the end of Bush.

Rudi But while Bush might be unpopular, he can be elected out of office. Saddam is permanent.

Nick Bush was never voted into office.

Rudi Whatever, Bush can be voted out of office.

Eleanor Do you all think that war is inevitable?

Rudi I am afraid that war is inevitable. Certainly the Americans are not going to put their troops back on their boats and planes and ferry them back to the USA. That would represent a massive climb-down on the part of the US. It will also encourage Saddam to go to greater excesses.

Nick If Bush and Blair thought that most people regarded what they were doing as morally right they would have already invaded Iraq – because most people think that this is not entirely moral (ie, it is about oil or something else) they need legal backing to give them some apparent justification. In the end, unless Saddam hands over the weapons it doesn't matter what the UN or anyone else says, 600,000 troops standing on Saddam's doorstep will invade. It simply costs too much to keep them there idle much longer.

Robert Nick's remark is sadly true but it underlines the point that international law is as much about law as it is about power politics.

Nick Whatever the outcome at the UN, the US will send in its troops. It is akin to a long-running arbitration that has become too costly to settle and in which the key protaganists are taking it personally. I wonder if, as often happens, many people have lost sight of what they arguing over. Can we round this up? I have a meeting.

Eleanor Thanks so much for taking part.

<<< Nick Henchie left the chat

Robert Goodbye. Over and out.