Blair finds refuge in “legal” war

The British prime minister, fearing that his government could fall, hopes an international law victory can help calm the rebellion.

Topics: George W. Bush, United Nations, Iraq, England, British Election, Middle East,

Britain’s beleaguered Prime Minister Tony Blair received a much-needed boost at home Monday when his attorney general announced that war on Iraq would be legal, even if the United Nations Security Council did not pass a second resolution clearly authorizing an attack.

Blair’s pro-war stance is widely unpopular among British voters and has prompted a brewing revolt within his own party. If he’d lost the legal support of his attorney general, experts say his prime minister position would have been in serious, if not immediate, jeopardy.

Indeed, when the war debate resumes in Parliament Tuesday, half the members of Blair’s Labour Party — approximately 160 backbenchers — are expected to abandon the prime minister and vote against sending British troops into action. That’s 40 more than voted against the war in February, which itself was the largest Parliamentary revolt in English history. On Monday, House of Commons leader Robin Cook became the first of Blair’s cabinet ministers to resign over the war. More ministers, along with dozens of less senior government officials, could follow suit once the attack begins.

Yet politically, things could be worse for Blair. Speculation had been running rampant in British political circles that Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith, whom Blair appointed to be the country’s top legal advisor, had warned the prime minister in private that war would be illegal under international law because without a second resolution, the U.N. had failed to OK a military attack. Up until Monday, Goldsmith had refused to say what advice he’d given Blair.

Normally bound by a code of cabinet confidentiality, the attorney general had been pressed by Blair’s many war critics in Parliament to explain his stance on the crucial question. On Monday, Goldsmith, who worked with a team of 15 attorneys in coming to the decision, insisted war would be legal even without a second vote. Although appointed by the prime minister, the attorney general’s office in Britain is seen as more independent and less political than its American counterpart.

In a sign of how politically sensitive the subject of an illegal war has become, Goldsmith’s ruling was submitted to Parliament in writing, and he thereby avoided being cross-examined by war opponents. Some members of Parliament, as well as a growing body of British academics and attorneys, insist the U.N. charter is clear, and offers only two reasons to legally wage war: self-defense (Article 51), and to restore international peace (Article 42).



That view was supported last week by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. “If the U.S. and others were to go outside the Security Council and take unilateral action they would not be in conformity with the (U.N.) charter,” he said, with the result that “the legitimacy and support for any such action will be seriously impaired.”

Goldsmith’s ruling was good news for Blair, but it’s unlikely to quell the debate.

Ultimately, the outcome of the war will stand as the final word on the debate over international law, says James Crawford, a professor at Cambridge University. “The government has the prerogative to breach international laws,” he says. “If it goes ahead anyway and the war is a clear success, then the government will get away with it. If Blair uses force against substantial legal opinion that the war is illegal and something goes seriously wrong with the operation, he won’t survive as prime minister.”

While some Americans might dismiss the charge of “an illegal war” as a peace activist cliché, the charge carries real weight in Europe where the International Court of Justice sits. Though it has no direct jurisdiction over the matter, the charge of an illegal war gives Blair’s many critics a powerful way to frame their opposition.

The debate centers around semantics, and the simple question: Has the U.N., through previous resolutions, already given the U.S. and Britain permission to wage war? In Resolution 1441, which the Security Council passed unanimously last November, it warned Iraq of “serious consequences” if Iraq did not fully comply with disarmament. The threat against Iraq is clear, but the specifics are not. In addition, the resolution noted the Security Council would reconvene if Iraq proved to be in material breach of the weapons inspectors, and then it would declare the U.N’s intentions by passing another resolution.

Perhaps in hopes of avoiding just this type of confusion, the United States originally wanted 1441 to contain a stronger warning about using “all necessary means,” which international lawyers agree means war. However, “all necessary means” was dropped in favor of “serious consequences” last fall after Security Council members France, China and Russia raised objections.

So, with a second resolution withdrawn today due to lack of support, and 1441 standing as the U.N.’s final public stance on Iraq, does it authorize war? “It depends on your interpretation,” notes Marlies Glasius, at the London School of Economics’ Center for the Study of Global Government. “A case for and against ‘serious consequences’ could be made by teams of international lawyers. But the most logical body to make that interpretation is the Security Council. And if a majority of members do not interpret that wording as authorizing war, then it’s not legal.”

Cambridge’s Crawford, an international attorney, agrees: “‘Serious consequences’ is a threat, but the first resolution did not authorize force.”

Attorney General Goldsmith and other loyal members of Blair’s cabinet argue that Resolution 1441 does give authorization. And if that weren’t enough, an earlier Iraq resolution, which still has legal standing, specifically authorized the U.N. to use “all necessary means” against Saddam Hussein if he did not comply. The resolution, 678, was passed by the Security Council 13 years ago, prior to the first Gulf War.

As for the U.N. charter’s Article 51 regarding self-defense, Britain’s foreign secretary Jack Straw last month explained: “It is well established in international law that the right to take necessary and proportionate military action in self-defense applies not only where an attack has occurred but also preemptively where an attack is imminent.” Straw considers a strike from Iraq to be imminent, though that is much doubted by critics.

The debate represents yet another reason why the promised vetoes from Russia and particularly France, which seems intractable in its position, loomed so large for Blair. Not only did the prime minister need the second resolution to sway public opinion, but Blair until quite recently did not treat 1441 as authorization for war. In contrast to the White House, which made clear it considered 1441 reason enough for war, Blair’s less hawkish public statements regularly pointed toward the need for a second resolution. With those diplomatic hopes now dashed, Blair and his team have changed their position.

Even if the U.S. and Britain managed to convince seven other countries to vote for the resolution, France could have still laid down an “unreasonable veto,” as Blair put it. At that point London and Washington would argue they had authority for war because the will of the council had been expressed.

The problem, says Glasius at the London School of Economics, is that a veto would end the resolution. Despite Blair’s spin, he said, “An ‘unreasonable veto’ is not part of international law.”

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>