Originally Published in World Editorial & International Law

A war initiated by the United States to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq under the present circumstances, and without U.N. Security Council authorization, would be tantamount to a “war of aggression,” an international crime for which high-ranking leaders of the Axis countries during World War II were held to account at the International Military Tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo.

The chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Robert Jackson, described such war as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Thus, the seriousness of the international law violation that such a war would entail would exceed the seriousness of the Iraqi violations that the Bush administration has cited to justify it. Such a war would also symbolize the complete reversal of official U.S. policy toward international law since World War II.

In the immediate aftermath of the allied war against Nazi and Japanese aggression, the United States led other nations in establishing the United Nations Charter “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” and in founding the United Nations “to maintain international peace and security,” “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace,” and “to bring about by peaceful means” settlements of international disputes.

A war against Iraq at this time, whether initiated by the United States alone or with authorization from the U.N. Security Council, would violate these founding U.N. principles by permitting an unprovoked major war to occur, most likely with massive loss of life and the threat of wider conflict and conflagration.

Furthermore, because the law of the U.N. Charter is less than ideal—reserving permanent Security Council membership to the great powers, including the United States, with veto authority over the council’s resolutions—a U.S.-imposed Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq would highlight and exacerbate the U.N.’s weaknesses, and would constitute a major setback to its fundamental goals and aspirations.

If noncompliance with U.N. resolutions and secret weapons programs were legitimate grounds for the Security Council to authorize force, then the United States, if it were consistent, would be preparing a force-authorizing resolution for its own invasion, as well as for invasions of other permanent members of the council, and of Israel, India, Pakistan, and others.

If the Security Council, however, manages to withstand U.S. pressure to authorize an invasion, and if, as it has threatened, the Bush administration invades Iraq without such authorization, the damage to international law would be equally great, given that the United States would be demonstrating its contempt for the U.N. Charter and the United Nations in the clearest possible terms.

As the chief architect of the U.N. Charter, and as the world’s most powerful nation—militarily, economically, and politically—the United States has a special responsibility to uphold the founding principles of the United Nations, and to lead the world, not repeatedly to war, but in setting international precedents and developing global models for the peaceful resolution of conflict consistent with the rules, principles, and procedures of the U.N. Charter.

With such leadership, the world could then turn its attention to broader applications of international law to other areas of profound concern, including global warming, preserving the oceans, protecting human rights, raising standards of living for the world’s poor, ending global starvation, ending the global arms bazaar, ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a just solution, and ending the threat of nuclear war—issues for which the Bush administration has shown only hostility. The alternative is international anarchy, irreversible environmental degradation and destruction, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps also a proliferation of wars unconstrained by the principles of a peaceful world order that the United States helped establish a half-century ago. Even the Bush administration’s efforts to reduce the terrorist threat to the United States would likely be damaged by an unprovoked war against an Arab state in the Middle East.

International law is essential in the twenty-first century because powerful technologies and integrated economies cannot be constrained by national boundaries. The adverse effects of pollution, disease, and weapons of war are uncontrollable without standards contained in law. The sanctity of the earth’s biosphere, including human survival, has become dependent upon the strengthening of these standards. Sadly, however, the United States under the Bush administration has initiated an intense assault on international law in order to pursue short-term and short-sighted interests that avoid, evade, ignore, or violate the standards painstakingly developed by the international community, including the United States, over many decades.

If the United States continues to shirk, even denounce, its responsibilities to uphold international law across a range of global problems and concerns, it will tear open the fabric of world security and international cooperation, and leave the future of the human race, including the United States, in extreme peril.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book isChoose Hope, Your Role in Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age.