International Law in tatters

Pubblicato: 31 marzo 2023 in Mondo
Tag:, , , ,

Twenty years ago, the world witnessed the beginning of the war in Iraq: a war started based on a new legal theory of international relations elaborated by the White House, at the time governed by George W. Bush. It was called “preemptive self-defense.” Foreign to the United Nations Charter, it had been used for the first time by the United States in 2001 to invade Afghanistan, and formalized in 2002 with its inclusion in the National Security Strategy presented by Bush to the U.S. Congress. It was a doctrine born out of the 9/11 attacks, used in the heat of the moment against Afghanistan, accused of harboring Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Sunni terrorist network Al Qaeda. According to American intelligence, bin Laden could have organized attacks against structures and citizens of the United States from there. In reality, bin Laden would only be located and killed in 2011, not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan, a staunch ally of the United States.

The preparation for military intervention against Iraq, instead, was based on the assumption that Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Baghdad, possessed weapons of mass destruction. It was the first time a democratic state officially disseminated and used a “fake news” created to steer national and international public opinion. On February 5, 2003, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the UN with a vial full of white powder: it was anthrax, he said, and constituted evidence of Iraq’s chemical arsenal. But after years of war, anthrax was never found in Iraq. Powell himself in 2005 called that speech to the UN a stain on his career.

However, the principle of “preemptive self-defense” had already established itself, overcoming what the 51st article of the UN Charter states on the same topic. Going back in time, only the 1990 intervention to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi invasion was carried out respecting all the formalities of international law: it obtained the UN’s green light thanks to the abstention of the USSR in the Security Council. For the rest, with the veto power in the hands of five powers on different sides, it has been impossible to reach agreed and shared interventions in cases of UN Charter violations. Therefore, the doctrine of preemptive self-defense has become an interesting shortcut. It has not only been used by the United States, but is also shared by Australia and the United Kingdom, as well as Israel. The latest convert to the Bush doctrine is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has justified the invasion of Ukraine based on the hypothesis that the neighboring country could become an operational base for NATO, thus endangering Russian security.

Today, when starting a dialogue between the parties in conflict, this is the great obstacle: how to reconcile Ukraine’s right to regain the occupied territories, enshrined in the UN Charter, and Russia’s right to ensure that no future dangers come from that border, claimed based on “preemptive self-defense.” It is a puzzle that is difficult to solve. To ensure peace in the world, instead, the first steps should be the reform of the UN Security Council and the rewriting of the rules: because if we have come to this point, it is also thanks to the casual use of “à la carte” law by global powers.


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