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Tuesday, April 04, 2006 

John Reid: International law and rules of war are out of date.

The last time "Dr" John "Oh fuck, not health" Reid opened his mouth in a major speech, he suggested that if Lord Haw Haw were alive, he'd have a weekly column in the newspapers. This time he's implied that because of the changed circumstances of the apparent threat we now face from barbaric terrorists, the Geneva conventions are out of date:

"That is why I pose three questions about the international legal framework. Put simply, in today's changed circumstances are we convinced that it adequately covers:

* the contemporary threat from international terrorists?
* The circumstances in which states may need to take action in order to avert imminent attack?
* Those situations where the international community needs to intervene on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity in order to stop internal suppression - mass murder and genocide – as opposed to external aggression?

Afghanistan is a good example. There were clear legal grounds for the international community – led by the US – taking action against Afghanistan after 9/11. Al Qaeda had proved both the intent and the capability to kill thousands of innocent men women and children. The threat of them doing so again was clearly imminent for all to see.

But what if another threat develops? Not Al Qaeda. Not muslim extremism. Something none of us are thinking about at the moment. The proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction has coincided with the growth of those prepared to use them. We know that terrorist groups continue to try and acquire such weapons and that they have described their willingness to use them. We also know that they continue to seek opportunities to launch attacks on a similar or greater scale as 9/11. Hopefully, we would learn of any such threat before any atrocities had been committed. I believe we would have strong legal grounds to take action to protect ourselves against attack. I also suspect that others would disagree. A debate would centre around "imminence". The very significant consequences of action or inaction in these circumstances should give us all pause for thought.

So, uh, what is that this threat that none of us are thinking about at the moment? Apparently it isn't al-Qaida or muslim extremism, so could it possibly be that a suggestion that Iran or North Korea may give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? In an incredibly glib statement, Reid tells us that terrorists try to acquire these weapons and have described their willingness to use them. No doubt true, but the only terrorist group that has ever obtained what could be described as a chemical or biological weapon was Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and injuring over 6000. In other words, Reid is making a number of assumptions about things that might happen, not that are going to happen. Hopefully we would also learn about such threats before they happened, which is a nice piece of optimism.

Reid's main point though is that of pre-emption, which he apparently feels should be made more lawful than it is at the moment. This has been the cornerstone of US foreign policy since 2002, and of which Iraq was the first victim. Both the US and UK have been somewhat angered by Kofi Annan declaring that the war was illegal, and ever since have been trying to get everyone to see their point of view. The trouble is that international law applies to everyone, as Simon Tisdall points out. Iran has understandably been getting rather worried about the war of words which have gone between it and the US, with Iran promising to match pain with pain, should sanctions be declared by the UN security council. As Tisdall writes:

From Iran's perspective, all this amounts to a serious military threat that may not yet be "imminent" - but could soon become so. Its spokesmen have pledged to meet pain with pain and hurt with hurt.

The assumption until now has been that Iran would passively wait and see what the Americans do. But as Mr Reid has helpfully pointed out, western countries increasingly believe they have, or should have, a legal right to pre-empt. Logically, Iran has an identical right - and may choose to exercise it.

The possibility, however remote or unlikely it may seem now, of Iran attacking before it is attacked demonstrates how dangerous the whole Bush doctrine of pre-emption really is; and how problematic, too, are attempts to change international law to suit contemporary circumstances.

In reality, any such attack by Iran would be suicide. Even if it did have nuclear weapons, which even the CIA has admitted could take it five years to acquire, any attack, such as one on Israel would result in both the US and Israel turning Teheran, if not the entire country into a sheet of glass. Yet under Reid's apparent thought process, any such move by Iran would possibly be legal. The whole reason for Iran's continuing dash for nuclear weapons has been because of the differences in US policy towards North Korea and Iraq. North Korea, apparently having nuclear weapons, has not been invaded. Iraq, accused of having weapons of mass destruction but actually having none, was invaded. To Teheran, the development of a nuclear weapon therefore makes sense, especially when faced with the US army sitting on two of its borders, and with a nuclear Israel, Pakistan and India within close vicinity. It all comes down to the old mutually assured destruction thesis; no one is going to launch the first weapon, because it will lead to everyone dying, and no one has been crazy enough to want that to happen yet.

Reid's motives are of course that the west is always right and has pure reasons for wanting to be protected under law for launching pre-emptive strikes; the last thing anyone wants is another September the 11th. Yet the laws which were drawn up following the second world war were as a result of the Holocaust, the deaths of six million, the dropping of atomic weapons on Japan and the bombing of cities in both Germany and Britain. Reid apparently wants these laws to be changed because of the deaths of a tiny number compared to those who perished under the Nazi war of aggression, and because the barbaric terrorists are apparently even more evil than the Nazis which so many politicians are eager to compare them to. It is reminiscent of how the US squealed when in the first stages of the Iraq war pictures of captured soldiers were broadcast, while the United States was carrying out its shock and awe on the population of Baghdad. Let's be clear: a death is a death, yet politicians seem to want to sweep away the humanitarian advances and rules we have tried to impose on war because a rag-tag band of men want to harm us. Is this not a callous overreaction to the actual threat that we face?

Reid drops the biggest clanger in the speech here though:

However, he said, it was not "sufficient just to say [Guantánamo] is wrong".

Apparently Reid feels that saying that a prison camp where men are held without charge, without access to lawyers and where so many have been so desperate to end their suffering that have gone on hunger strike, only for the military to force-feed them, is wrong is not sufficient. This is even when Blair says that Guantanamo is an anomaly, and when Peter Hain said that it should be closed. The United States doesn't even have the decency to return the poetry of one of the held men who was eventually released due to his innocence, yet we cannot just call the prison camp of Guantanamo wrong.

Reid is right to start a debate. More discussion is needed, especially over intervention when it comes to stopping genocide. But we must not just abandon our gradually built up values just because we face a new threat. That would not just lower our own moral values, but also do the most to show our own hypocrisy at a time when we need to win hearts and minds.

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I have a real problem with John Reid....namely, that he is a tosser. I am really concerned about the attempts by certain politicians to change the rules to legitimise their actions. These laws will not last much longer if they get their way

sorry, i know that devalues the debate, calling him a 'tosser'. I just don't like him

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