He's the talk of the town right now, or of the media anyway. I'm referring to Philippe Sands. The Guardian today carries a second excerpt from his book Lawless World (the first is here). I want to offer one or two observations of my own on Sands's views. Let's start with this:
Why has Britain associated itself so closely with an administration that has such scant regard for the international rule of law? That is a difficult question that only Blair himself can answer. If an illegal war in Iraq had made the world a safer place, then arguably it might be justified. But there is little evidence that the world is a safer place, and a great deal more evidence that the Iraq war has provided a major distraction to the challenge posed by global terrorism and al-Qaida. Neither can it be said that the Middle East is more stable or peaceful, nor that the existence of the detention camp at Guantánamo and the failure to apply human rights and humanitarian law are the best way to win hearts and minds, or persuade the occupied of your humanitarian intentions.Now, the arguments here have been gone over many times, and I don't propose to re-engage with all of them. But note just two things about the above passage. First, note 'more stable' with reference to the Middle East: as in not more stable; and as if stability were a bottom-line objective for all fair-minded people, without regard to the nature of political regimes or to conditions of life and liberty, and so forth. Second, in his roundup of what might or might not justify an 'illegal' war, the humanitarian aspect of the issue comes up for Sands as 'Guantánamo' and the human rights failures on the coalition side. The fact that the war actually got rid of the Saddam Hussein regime barely registers. On this the writer is in plenty of worthy company, so let's move on.
The only plausible answer is that the prime minister believed that solidarity and self-interest required him to place Britain alongside the US, more or less whatever it chose to do. History will tell whether that was the right choice. In the meantime, Britain's stock as a law-abiding global citizen has taken a beating. Its authority and leadership role are degraded.
The piece excoriates Bush and Blair for their cavalier approach to international law, of which Sands is a partisan. So (after a fashion) would I describe myself. The ideal of a lawful world order is to be preferred to the possibility of a competely lawless one. But for goodness sake, not just any kind of lawful world order. See how Sands writes about the one we actually have. Allowing that existing rules should be 'continually assessed', that they may be 'modified where necessary' and that some may even need 'a thorough overhaul, to make them more efficient and accountable to parliaments and to the people', he insists that this must be achieved cooperatively.
Imperfect as some of the international rules may be, they reflect minimum standards of acceptable behaviour and, to the extent they can be ascertained, common values. They provide an independent standard for judging the legitimacy of international actions. I do not think recent events have changed these basic assumptions or created a new paradigm.One might imagine from this that Philippe Sands was writing of a world of general peace and harmony with only a few glitches here and there and some partial inefficiency. That the reality of the international system of law and institutions is one which regularly permits every atrocity you want, ranging from torture and murder through massacre to genocide, scarcely causes a ripple in his prose. This is not an argument for abandoning the ideal of lawful international order. It is very much a consideration, however, when trying to weigh the force of what international law may require (when it does indeed do this) by way of non-intervention of outside forces in some particular national combination of circumstances, and the force of other and more pressing moral requirements, requirements of simple humanity.
Read today about what is happening in Darfur, where the UN still cannot bring itself to pronounce the word 'genocide'. Just read if you can bear to (and skip past this if you can't):
There are thousands more of these photos. Many of them show attacks on children and are too horrific for a newspaper.Is it a new situation that has crept up on us without warning? No. It keeps happening, in one place after another. In Rwanda nearly a million people were slaughtered in a few months. Was the principal question then what international law might permit? No, the principal question was how to stop the slaughter, lawfully or otherwise, but effectively. 'Modified where necessary', 'minimum standards of acceptable behaviour', 'the legitimacy of international actions' - these phrases become a hollow joke when they are used to present a deeply flawed order of law and institutions, regularly able to accommodate the most appalling human crimes, as if it provides the only possible source of justification and legitimation. Yes, we need to work towards a better system of international law, one that protects people from the many criminals against humanity; but until such time as we have that system and the institutions to back it, international law just takes its chances with the other pressing moral considerations that govern life and death.
One wrenching photo in the archive shows the manacled hands of a teenager from the girls' school in Suleia who was burned alive. It's been common for the Sudanese militias to gang-rape teenage girls and then mutilate or kill them.
Another photo shows the body of a young girl, perhaps 10 years old, staring up from the ground where she was killed. Still another shows a man who was castrated and shot in the head.
This archive, including scores of reports by the monitors on the scene, underscores that this slaughter is waged by and with the support of the Sudanese government as it tries to clear the area of non-Arabs. Many of the photos show men in Sudanese Army uniforms pillaging and burning African villages.
Let's bring the issue back now to Iraq. In the Atlantic Monthly for March 2005, there's a long piece - and I mean long - by William Langewiesche. It tells the story of Hania Mufti, a Jordanian woman who has worked on documenting crimes against humanity in Iraq for more than two decades, and the story of many of those crimes themselves. The article is not written from a pro-war perspective or one uncritical of the US intervention, and unfortunately access to it requires a subscription. But it should be compulsory reading for everyone who argues about Iraq, and especially for those who have become reticent about breaches of humanitarian law committed by those who aren't Americans (and, of course, Israelis). Here are some excerpts:
[Hania Mufti] did not complain [about having to wear a scarf]. Personal discomfort and the oppression of women seemed minor compared with what lay ahead in Iraq: a nightmare filled with the most brutal political horrors, including severe torture and indiscriminate human slaughter.It is possible to respect some of the reasons held by those who opposed the war, some of their reasons for having opposed it. It is impossible to respect a way of opposing the war which could not and cannot recognize in all this material any reason at all why that war might have been supported, impossible to respect a concern for international law which is either oblivious to or conveniently silent about the human weight of it. The smug certainty of rectitude within the worldwide anti-war (anti-liberation) consensus has revealed grave weaknesses within so-called progressive opinion.
When I asked her what she had felt in Kurdistan during the lead-up to the invasion, she did not answer for herself but described the concern of the people around her. They were worried that international opposition to the war might cause Britain and the United States to hesitate, or back down. She said, "The question about whether there were weapons of mass destruction or not, I think for many Iraqis that was just a red herring. It didn't matter whether they were found. And there were all these antiwar demonstrations being shown on television, in Europe and the States, and elsewhere in the Middle East. And I remember sitting with various groups of Kurds watching the news, and they'd look at the TV screen and gesture in this way" - she waved her hand dismissively - "and they'd say, 'These people don't know what they're talking about. They should come here and try Saddam for a while, and see whether or not they like it for themselves.'"
In August  sixty-seven Kurdish women and children, who had fled Iraqi artillery attacks on their village, were said by Kurdish sources to have been burned to death in a cave where they had sought refuge.
In March of 1970 hundreds of Iraqi communists were arrested, tortured, broken, wiped out. Many of their families were arrested too, soon afterward or later on. Terror seeped through every crack of Iraqi society as Saddam Hussein tightened his control.
As a foretaste of what was to come, in July of 1983 government forces entered Kurdish resettlement camps and arrested 8,000 men and teenage boys of a prominent and rebellious clan known as the Barzanis. The prisoners were chosen not for what they had done but simply for family association and gender. They were loaded into trucks and driven south into the vastness of the Iraqi desert, where, it is presumed, they were machine-gunned to death and buried. Not one of them was ever seen again.
An Iraqi doctor of medicine testified to Amnesty International in 1984 that he witnessed and was forced to participate in the taking of blood from prisoners which resulted in their death. According to his testimony, he was aware of approximately 1000 such operations having taken place during 1982 and 1983. The operations are reportedly directly controlled by Security Headquarters (Ri'asat al-Mukhabarat) in Baghdad, and carried out with the co-operation of a prison director and personnel of the Blood Bank Institute in Baghdad. [The bleeding process is then described.]
Amnesty was in a position to understand that this was no longer just another repressive Middle Eastern government at play. [My italics]
It took another several years for the truth to come out: what the Turkish doctors had seen (and Mufti had just missed) was evidence of one of the great crimes of the late twentieth century - an Iraqi counterinsurgency campaign that had exceeded all bounds, and indeed had gone quite insane. That campaign was the Iraqi equivalent of the Final Solution - a carefully planned "cleansing" operation, known in Arabic as the "Anfal" (a Koranic reference meaning "spoils of war"), whose purpose was to eliminate the rural population from which the Kurdish rebels were drawn, and to empty the most troublesome valleys, by killing or arresting the inhabitants, razing their villages, and creating permanent free-fire zones where not even livestock would be allowed to live. It lasted for seven months, from February through September of 1988, and was led by Saddam's special envoy, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who during its course earned his name as Chemical Ali.
Altogether, Human Rights Watch estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were killed in the Anfal operations, including many women and children.
This... from a Kuwaiti doctor:
"On average, five or six new bodies were brought to the hospital each day. All were males and most were in their 20s. Many bore marks of torture. Judging by the bodies that I personally saw, the methods of torture being used included the extinguishing of cigarettes on the body; burning of the skin with heated metal rods; application of electricity; cutting off of the tongue and ear; gouging out of the eyes and the breaking of limbs. In most of these cases, the immediate cause of death appeared to be a single shot in the back of the head or, in a few cases, a shot in the ear or mouth... Some of the victims had also had their fingernails extracted, and others had swollen feet with pockets of pus as a result of being subjected to falaga [severe foot beatings] for prolonged periods. Some had marks around their ankles, consistent with having been suspended upside down..."
According to the information that Mufti was able to gather, the abuses were systematic. In addition to the techniques of torture described above, the investigators heard stories of other methods - of boring a hole in the leg with a drill; of castration; of tying a string around the penis and tightening it; of hammering nails into hands; of inserting bottle necks, sometimes broken, into the rectum; of pumping air into the anus, particularly of young boys; of extinguishing cigarettes in eyeballs; of burning and blinding people with acid and caustic substances; of subjecting people to extremes of heat and cold and thirst; of various forms of mock execution.
Mufti stayed on in the north for two weeks, and toward the end of April , on a momentous day in her life, finally arrived in Baghdad. The worst of the looting was over, and there was enough calm in the shattered streets for her to feel the popular elation, despite the fear and violence that lay below the surface.
(Hat tip: Linda Grant - for directing me to the Langewiesche article.)