Blair and the UN

7 March 2004

The UN Is Not A Morality Play

By Gwynne Dyer

“It may well be that under international law as presently constituted a regime can systematically brutalise and oppress its own people and there is nothing anyone can do….This may be the law, but should it be?” asked Prime Minister Tony Blair last Friday in a speech that tried to persuade sceptical British voters that he was right to attack Iraq at President George W. Bush’s side. He didn’t answer his own question, assuming that everybody agrees the answer is yes. The correct answer, however, is no.

Mr Blair and Mr Bush have both ended up arguing the moral case for invading Iraq. though it didn’t get mentioned much before the war. Having found no ‘weapons of mass destruction’ nor any connection between Saddam Hussein and the Islamist terrorists who attacked the United States, their sole remaining justification for the invasion is the fact that it removed a vicious dictator. The problem is that it is not a legal justification.

It seems so obvious: there’s a wicked regime; we have the power to destroy it; let’s do those people a favour and invade. We need to change international law so that we can legally invade “when a nation’s people are subject to a regime such as Saddam’s,” as Mr Blair put it.

Who would be the targets? Any regime that is judged to “systematically brutalise and oppress its own people” — North Korea, or Burma, or Zimbabwe, or even China, depending on which countries set themselves up as the judges. That should keep us all busy until the End of Time.

Mr Blair’s argument has a strong emotional appeal. It would be nice if there were some impartial and all-powerful force in the world that would unerringly punish all the wicked while sparing all the innocent. The traditional name for this force, however, is God, and even He has chosen not to act within history in quite so hyper-active a way, postponing the sorting out of the good and the evil to a time shortly after the End of Time. Mr Blair’s offer to bring the Last Judgment forward by a billion years or so is doubtless well-meant, but it is ill-advised.

Even well-educated people like Mr Blair profoundly misunderstand the nature of the United Nations. They imagine that it is a sword of Justice, and maybe even an instrument of Love. They do not understand that the heart of the United Nations enterprise is a brutally realistic attempt to change international law in order to prevent World War III. The UN is a nuclear blast shelter, not the international equivalent of a battered women’s shelter.

When was the UN founded? 1945. What was the situation in 1945? The biggest war in history had just ended: 45 million people were dead, most of the cities of the industrialised world had been bombed flat, and nuclear weapons had just been dropped on cities for the first time. What was the prognosis? Another world war eventually, with every great power holding hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons on Day One. Five hundred million dead in the first week. So right there, in 1945, the countries of the world decided to try to change that future. They created the United Nations, a new institution whose Charter declared that henceforth war is illegal.

It did not say that henceforth tyranny is illegal, because enforcing such a rule would mean endless war. (First we attack Stalin, then Mao, then….) It was a hundred-year project at the very least, since human beings have been fighting wars since the dawn of civilisation eight thousand years ago, or even before. But it was necessary, because the only alternative, sooner or later, was World War III with nuclear weapons.

The basic UN rule is that you can no longer legally attack another country, and no excuses are accepted. The fact that their ancestors stole some of your country’s territory a hundred years ago doesn’t justify it, nor does a suspicion that they are planning to attack you, nor even the fact that their government wickedly oppresses its own people. Allow those exceptions, and clever lawyers will find a way to argue that every aggression is legal. So the law says no exceptions.

During the 1990s, when the international environment was relatively benign, attempts were made to get round this rule in order justify humanitarian military interventions to stop genocides in Bosnia and Kosovo. The interventions were actually done by NATO on a nod-and-a-wink basis, with the UN renaming the attacking troops as blue helmets as soon as the fighting ended and legalising the entire affair post-facto. They were well meant and they saved lives, but after Iraq that kind of intervention won’t soon happen again: it opened doors that should have stayed shut.

Mr Blair isn’t really trying to change the basic UN law; he’s just trying to justify why he broke it last year by invading Iraq. It is unlikely that he or Mr Bush will be urging us all to invade Burma later this year. But the law is there for a reason, and it is still a good reason.

Countries should be left to deal with their own dictators — and these days there are even techniques available that will let them do so non-violently, if they have the patience to work at it. Foreign invasions are not the solution.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Mr  Blair’s…ill-advised”; and “During…shut”)