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Image: Unsplash

Illegal wars of aggression: How the hypocrisy of Western leaders has severely undermined international law

The war between Russia and Ukraine is already being discussed with a future legal reckoning in mind.

Gordon Brown, British Prime Minister from 2007 to 2010, declared in an interview with the BBC that a special international tribunal at the ICC (International Criminal Court) should be established in order to try Vladimir Putin for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Brown criticised international law for not currently having legislation in place that would allow Putin to be prosecuted for initiating an illegal war of aggression. Similarly in the U.S., Condoleezza Rice – former U.S. Secretary of State – appeared on Fox News to condemn Putin for committing war crimes punishable by international law.

Undoubtedly, Vladimir Putin is guilty of instigating the ‘supreme’ crime against humanity by initiating an illegal war of aggression against the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Nevertheless, political figures like Gordon Brown and Condoleezza Rice have little moral authority when it comes to invoking international law.

When George W. Bush made the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 with the military backing of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Rice was acting National Security Advisor to the Bush administration and Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Blair’s Labour government. Both Rice and Brown were involved in supporting and pursuing the war in Iraq which is now considered to have been an illegal war, which violated international law.

The decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein was purportedly a Western humanitarian mission to “liberate” the Iraqi people from dictatorial rule and establish self-governance in the form of a neo-liberal democratic system. The invasion was justified as an act of self-defence against an existential threat posed by Iraq.

The Pentagon claimed that they had firm intelligence that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction which posed a significant threat to global security. By the time the Pentagon’s intelligence was in fact proved to be baseless, the U.S. and the UK were already engaged in a bloody war in the Middle East. The fighting and chaos which ensued politically destabilised Iraq and saw tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed by American and coalition forces.

Benjamin B. Ferencz, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials has confirmed that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a war of aggression. Ferencz states that “a country can’t use force in anticipation of self-defence” which is precisely what Coalition forces did when they invaded Iraq. 

The idea that George Bush and Tony Blair are war criminals is not a fringe opinion; Ferencz himself said in 2006 that “a prima facie case can be made that the United States is guilty of the supreme crime against humanity, that being an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation”.

The rule of law only retains salience and legitimacy if it is applied to everyone equally, without exception.

However, the mechanisms of the United States government, in particular the ‘Hague Law’, makes it almost impossible for George Bush, Tony Blair or any other of those complicit in the Iraq war to be put on trial, let alone face prosecution.

The ‘Hague Law’ – or the ‘Hague Invasion Act’ – was enshrined into U.S Law by President Bush in 2002. The act protects U.S. service members from the International Criminal Court, and authorises military force to extricate any American or U.S. allied citizen from the court located in The Hague. The threat that the U.S. will essentially invade The Hague if it attempts to prosecute any U.S. or allied servicemen means that Western leaders have effectively granted themselves immunity to legal accountability;  the U.S. are playing into the same system which they helped to create in the aftermath of WWII.

The rule of law only retains salience and legitimacy if it is applied to everyone equally, without exception. Therefore, it is surreal to hear Brown and Rice, the very politicians involved in the invasion of Iraq allude to international law with a tone of moral righteousness.

There is something sickening about seeing figures who are deeply implicated in international illegality make themselves so conspicuous at a time of tragedy in Europe; at a time when Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has so many parallels with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Politicians are using the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a platform from which they can deflect their own culpability.

By engaging in such blatant hypocrisy, the advocacy for a rules-based international system seems almost laughable. The West’s consistent form when it comes to flouting its own rules, is incredibly irresponsible because it not only undermines the entire international legal system but also provides leverage for the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to evade justice.

Politicians’ performative gestures of remorse are a disgrace and an insult to the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians

There is no doubt that Putin should be put on trial at the ICC for the heinous crimes which he is committing in Ukraine. However, if international law is to be taken seriously, then George W. Bush and Tony Blair should also be put on trial in an international criminal court for the crimes they committed in Iraq.

Tony Blair’s pre-written apology speeches, delivered with a sombre expression where he claims “I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can believe” is a selfish attempt to use rhetoric to salvage some sense of morality for his own moral conscience. 

Politicians’ performative gestures of remorse are a disgrace and an insult to the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians whose lives were ruined and lost at the hands of Western forces. It is a symbol of Western leaders’ failure to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions and it certainly does not look like justice.  

For far too long the West has been playing a dangerous game with international law, acting as the supreme arbiter and evader of justice; the consequences of such duality are beginning to be felt in Europe and in the end  it is a game in which we will all lose out.

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