Painful parallels and international law
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Former US President George W Bush suffered an unfortunate slip of the tongue last week when he condemned “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq” before correcting himself to say “I mean, Ukraine”.

It was especially embarrassing since it was he who ordered the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 in which an estimated 200,000 civilians were killed. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, no angel by any measure, was captured by US forces, convicted, and sentenced to death by a hurriedly established court, the integrity and conduct of which remain questionable.

Then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared that the invasion was illegal under international law and a violation of the UN Charter. The US justified its actions on the grounds that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction which posed a threat to its national security. No such weapons were ever found.

The US subsequently admitted that its intelligence was wrong. It could well be described as “a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion” but the US has never been held accountable for its actions. It now insists that Russia must be held accountable for its actions in invading Ukraine.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin says that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary because it posed a serious threat to Russia’s security. The reverse was actually true. Ukraine’s conflict with Russia had to do with its annexation of Crimea, which Ukraine had pretty much conceded, and Russia’s support of separatist forces in the Donbas region, which Ukraine was determined to resist on its own soil.

This is the same Putin who, in response to the US invasion of Iraq, stated, “The use of force abroad, according to existing international laws, can only be sanctioned by the United Nations. Anything that is done without the UN Security Council’s sanction cannot be recognised as fair or justified.”

The US decision to wage war on Iraq was taken after its efforts to get an affirmative UN Security Council resolution failed. It decided to wage war nonetheless. Putin didn’t even bother to seek a UN Security Council resolution. He probably realised that it had no basis in international law or under the UN charter and decided that he didn’t need it because he was going to invade Ukraine anyway.

International law has evolved over centuries since ancient Greece. It is a set of rules generally recognised as binding between and among sovereign nations. It is not secured by any kind of supranational authority with the power to enforce it. Some of it has been codified by treaties to which countries voluntarily subscribe and even enact into domestic law. Other aspects of it rely on precedent established by international tribunals. Ultimately, however, it depends on consent and goodwill. A country is at liberty to repudiate its application even if, as a consequence, it faces sanctions imposed by individual countries or groups of countries.

The effectiveness of international law has been consistently undermined by powerful countries which proclaim it when it suits them and flagrantly violate it when it doesn’t. The organs that were established to give decisive effect to international law limp along because their jurisdiction applies only to those countries that have chosen to accept it and even those may choose at any time to unilaterally reject it.

For example, only 73 of 193 UN member states have accepted the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the United Kingdom is the only one of the five permanent members of the Security Council that is included. The same is pretty much true of the International Criminal Court that has attracted much cynicism as to its real purpose because 26 of the 32 people that have been put on trial are black men and one black woman from poor countries in Africa.

International law, therefore, rests on shaky grounds. It exists only because states find it advantageous in pursuing their national interests and it survives only to the extent that it continues to serve those interests. Non-compliance and repudiation remain options that are guided by those national interests.

There is also the real danger that repeated violations over time have the effect of redefining what international law says — what is legal and what is not. Its preservation and respectability rely heavily on consent and on the ability of the leaders of powerful nations to see beyond their narrow national interests and embrace a vision of a global space that requires order and fairness to ensure stability and mutual benefits. Without that, international law is hardly worth the time, scholarly effort, and costly institutions that have been given to it. It is sad that, in this era, leaders of that ilk are hard to come by.

It is sad, also, that countries like Jamaica, which have nothing to do with these conflicts and are generally faithful in and often coerced into observing international law, in the formulation of which they have little say, end up as collateral damage when powerful countries disregard it, as we are now experiencing with the war in Ukraine, simply because we, too, occupy that global space.

Bruce Golding served as Jamaica’s eighth prime minister from September 11, 2007 to October 23, 2011.

Former US President George W Bush
Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
Bruce Golding
Bruce Golding

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