Don’t let freedom fade

Belatedly, a bit more Bingham. (Updated 30/11.) And a question: what, exactly, was Martin Kettle saying in this column?

What’s most remarkable about the column is that Kettle doesn’t actually contest the argument Bingham put forward. Instead, there’s a steady drip-feed of insinuations that Bingham’s speech shouldn’t be taken seriously, whatever it was he actually said (he’s retired! the speech was provocative! Peter Goldsmith disagrees with it!). Then there’s a suggestion that it doesn’t have any bearing on the real world:

There are, moreover, two important practical objections to Bingham’s view. The first, as he acknowledged in his lecture, is that international law is hard to enforce. Its rules are regularly honoured in the breach, not least but not only by the US, which has been involved in some 40 military actions against sovereign states in the past quarter century. The second is that, in practice, the security council may be incapable of authorising otherwise legally justifiable military action because China or Russia will use their veto to prevent it. In practice, therefore, Bingham seems to be in danger of arguing that lawful military action is military action that Vladimir Putin permits – a position that would make international law an ass.

The first of these points can be quickly disposed of; the argument seems to be that the statement “the US has violated international law” is invalidated by the observation that the US has repeatedly violated international law in the past. This objection only really makes sense if we believe that the way lawyers think about international law should be conditioned by the way the Reagan and Bush governments have thought about it. More generally, it’s quite possible to argue that international law is meaningless, powerless or irrelevant, but those arguments aren’t usable against any particular statement within the field of international law. If international law is irrelevant, Bingham’s entire speech is irrelevant and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. There are traces of this Know-Nothing position in Kettle’s column, notably in the series of assorted jeers which serve as an introduction, but clearly it’s not a position he’s willing to commit himself to.

The second point seems a bit more substantial, but in fact betrays a similar misunderstanding of international law. No, international law doesn’t get anything done except by agreement among sovereign states, but that’s the nature of international law. Yes, lawful military action is military action approved by the government of Russia – and by the government of the USA, and by the governments of the rest of the states represented on the Security Council. The notion of otherwise legally justifiable military action is meaningless: whatever the grounds on which it might in theory be justifiable, military action is legally justified at the point when it’s approved by the Security Council, and not before. What Kettle seems to be hankering after is a kind of unilateralist version of international law: law as a set of principles (liberty, democracy, justice and so on), which could be invoked to justify lawful military action by any state, or group of states, without waiting to gain international agreement. This makes perfect sense, as long as we consider the purpose of international law to be that of maximising international conflict.

But it’s with Kettle’s conclusion that things get really strange. What – and it’s a genuine question – is he actually saying here?

The importance of Bingham’s lecture is not that Britain’s most distinguished lawyer has finally had the opportunity to say that Blair’s war in Iraq was illegal – though that isn’t insignificant. Its real importance is in pointing to the paradoxical fact that a major legacy of Iraq has been the boost it has given to the rule of law and to the wider process of codification in international affairs. As Bingham himself said towards the end of his compelling lecture, it is unlikely that states chastened by their experience in Iraq will be eager to repeat it. While they have not been hauled before the ICJ or any other tribunal, these states have been judged unfavourably by public opinion and thus their standing has been damaged.

The Iraq war was unnecessary and unwise. It may also have been unlawful. It is also, to all intents, over. Yet whether it was unlawful or not, the reality is that the states and the individuals who undertook it have been haunted by it ever since and may continue to be. An epochal public judgment has been made, even if it has not been made by a judge in a courtroom.

That judgment will forever haunt one man in particular. George Bush gives every impression of never wishing to leave the confines of Texas ever again in his life. But as he prepares to depart the White House he too will be diminished as all retiring leaders must be. In particular he will lose his mantle of presidential immunity.

It would be remarkable, right at this moment, if White House lawyers were not actively rehearsing the national and international legal position of the president and his lieutenants. This is the scorched earth, document-shredding period of the Bush presidency and it is possible, though improbable, that Bush may even seek a pardon for himself as Richard Nixon did a generation ago. In a roundabout way it is a gratifying reminder that, in the end and as Lord Bingham has spent a lifetime proving, the law is always bigger than all of us.

First, “a major legacy of Iraq has been the boost it has given to the rule of law”. Then, “these states have been judged unfavourably by public opinion … An epochal public judgment has been made, even if it has not been made by a judge in a courtroom.” But as a result of this judgment, apparently, Bush may end up facing a judge in a courtroom, and that’s “a gratifying reminder that, in the end … the law is always bigger than all of us”.

I think the key to this odd passage is that weaselly half-concession, It may also have been unlawful. The legal status of the Iraq war seems to exist for Kettle in a kind of quantum superposition – at some future point we may have found out whether the war was legal or not, but until then it remains both legal and illegal, or possibly neither legal nor illegal. There are three ways to read this contradiction, all of which find some support in the column. One is straightforward, bare-faced inconsistency: the war is legal in one sentence, illegal in the next. Kettle 1 argues that, although people said the Iraq war was illegal, it was actually legal because it was a good thing. However, the results of the war have turned out to be a bad thing, which shows that in fact the war was probably illegal. But that means we can still say it was a good thing, because it’s made it more likely that states won’t wage illegal wars in future.

Clearly, the problem with this reading is that it’s blatantly self-contradictory and makes your head hurt.

Kettle 2 resolves the contradiction slightly more coherently: the war on this reading was illegal, but it indirectly, and ironically, promoted legality. Kettle 2 concedes that the people who said the Iraq war was illegal were probably right all along. But it’s still a good thing the British and US governments didn’t listen to them, because they didn’t believe that the war was illegal. The invasion and its disastrous consequences are thus indirectly a good thing, because the massive unpopularity of the war will make governments pay more attention to arguments about international law from now on.

This reading makes a bit more sense; the only problem is that nobody in government (or in opposition, come to that) is actually saying anything that suggests they might have learnt a chastening lesson from Iraq, or that they take international law any more seriously than Tony Blair did.

Kettle 3, finally, reframes the contradiction by dividing international law, and hence legality, into a set of goals and principles (good) and a set of institutions and mechanisms (bad, or rather irrelevant). The war was illegal in one sense – in the sense that international lawyers said so – but in another sense it was legal, in that it furthered the goals of law. This, it’s worth noting, is not another would you rather have Saddam back in charge? argument about the benefits of the war; for Kettle 3, the war has made the world a more lawful place through its adverse effects. The reason why it’s a good thing that the invasion went ahead is that the reaction of global public opinion has influenced the British and US governments, in ways that the doomsaying of powerless international lawyers never could. (I seem to remember that global public opinion had a bit to say about the invasion before it had even happened, but set that aside. As Daniel Davies says, very often “if only we’d known then what we know now” really means “if only I’d known then what you knew then”.)

The problem with this reading is precisely this divorce of ends and means: the claim is that the war has given a ‘boost’ to international law because some of the aims of international law have been achieved by other, non-legal means. It’s a bit like saying that a lynching which is followed by a drop in crime has given a boost to law and order. Law doesn’t have aims which can be achieved by other means; to respect the law is to commit oneself to using legal means. In international law – which is perhaps the most underdeveloped area of the law, and particularly interesting for that reason – these means are grounded in voluntary international co-operation; there is no supranational enforcement agency. For a state to commit unilateral aggression is thus not only to break the law but to undermine the rule of law.

But this is only one possible reading of a very strange column, and alternative readings are entirely possible. I give you Kettle 1, a handy phrasemaker whose arguments collapse under their own weight; Kettle 2, a cynical realist about the past and a dewy-eyed optimist about the future; and Kettle 3, who believes in the rule of law as an aspiration, and believes that the best way to establish it is to break the law we’ve got now. Take your pick.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 1 December 2008 at 18:50 | Permalink | Reply

    I would have thought it perfectly possible to argue that international law, as it is not and cannot be properly enforced, cannot be taken as binding. But I would have thought it necessary in that case to specifically abrogate it, to actually declare that you will not be bound by it.

  2. Chris Williams
    Posted 2 December 2008 at 12:51 | Permalink | Reply

    I think that further clues to explaining MK’s behvaviour might reside in the nature of the antinomian heresy.

  3. Guano
    Posted 3 December 2008 at 23:46 | Permalink | Reply

    Justin makes a vey valid point. Our politicians are very careful not to abrogate international law, but they do send out spin-doctors like Kettle to cast doubts on the idea of international law. Our politicians are very careful not to say “a million demonstrators were right and we were wrong” but they do send out spin-doctors like Kettle to drop hints that maybe possibly a lesson has been learnt.

    Kettle has another odd column today (3rd December) taking up the theme “what if George Bush pardoned himself?”. Kettle still doesn’t explain satisfactorily how Bush pardoning himself before admitting to doing wrong strengthens international law, but he does seem to admit that invading Iraq was an act of lawlessness.

  4. Jussi Jalonen
    Posted 9 December 2008 at 16:23 | Permalink | Reply

    The fact that the text singles out Russia (or, rather, Putin – and he seems to be serious of his willingness to retire after this transition; find another boogeyman, you ill-informed western pundits) is irritating, but the remark on the Security Council nonetheless does have significance.

    Assuming that the UNSC did not have these “permanent security members” originally picked on the basis of owning enough colonies and being on the winning side of an international conflict that took place over sixty years ago… well, the UNSC would instantly be a lot more respectable and a lot more credible. And the international law would instantly become an instrument based on fair and equal representation and enforcement, both of them qualities that I myself would expect from any law.

    I have nothing against the Congress System, but I don’t like the idea of basing it on some Holy Alliance. Law is not inmutable; why should the institutions that supposedly uphold it be immune to change?

    Perhaps I’m asking for a utopia, but well, in the country that I live in, the fellows who uphold and enforce the law are not appointed for life. If the UNSC needs to have an Upper House, make it a revolving club; and if it absolutely has to be reserved for great powers, fine, make the membership dependent on the size of population, economy or weapons arsenal. But leave it otherwise open; it’s a strange world when the UK, the US, Russia and France are in possession of such clout, whereas India, Brazil or Japan are not allowed a comparable influence.

    Cheers,

    J. J.

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