The economics of conquest

Only a reinvigorated United Nations can bring the world's aggressors to heel

The other day I heard John Bolton - who lately resigned his post as US representative designate to the United Nations - saying how unforgivably evil it was of the Syrians to (allegedly) assassinate certain Lebanese politicians who were thought to be obstructing Syria’s ambition to gain political control of Lebanon. If true, that is certainly a despicable thing to do, definitely not the sort of behaviour we expect from a member of the community of nations.

Then, later, I heard that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had affirmed that the US expenditure of materials and human lives on a war intended to obtain political control of Iraq and bring to it US-style democracy is - and has been - as she put it, "a worthwhile investment".

Comparing these two projects, one can see that, although basically similar in purpose, the (alleged) Syrian investment is, in purely arithmetical terms, far more economical in outlay than the US one, in that only one or two lives were lost and little physical damage occurred, rather than the half-million or so lives that are thought to have been lost in the massive destruction unleashed by the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies.

Also, it is worth noting that neither of the projects can really be said to have been cost-effective. Syria has not obtained political control of Lebanon, and, if it ever had it, the US has long since lost political control of Iraq.

Arithmetic aside, we have to ask what has happened to the human race that these appalling projects should ever have been considered in the first place. The first key lies, I suspect, in the plastic weasel-phrase: “Regime-change”.

When one nation adopts the policy which is now called "regime-change", it implicitly arrogates to itself the right to remove by force the government of another nation, just because it, itself, doesn’t happen to approve of what that nation does.

When that happens, it follows that however virtuous its original intent, the nation which chose that policy has, by so doing, created a precedent which any other nation or group - however vile its intent - can legitimately consider itself entitled to emulate.

So now anybody and everybody can follow suit and have a go at the regime-change of their choice. While the world stands aghast at the piecemeal proliferation of random murder-projects that are destroying the once-civilized nation of Iraq, there is nothing anybody can do to stop it because it is all being done, inspired by the US example, in the name of regime-change, or in this case perhaps "regime-destruction".

The fact that Saddam Hussein was a complete despot does not alter the fact that to go to war and stamp on Iraq in order to get rid of him was, and still is, a piece of out-of-date pseudo-imperialist stupidity. Nor can it be regarded as having been cost-effective, because life for the surviving Iraqis is little better, often far worse and always infinitely more dangerous than it was in his time. American-style democracy doesn’t seem to take, perhaps because when you are dodging bombs and bullets, security seems more immediately necessary than enfranchisement.

Conquest?

There is nothing new about war and conquest and international power-politics. The Roman Empire was built on a programme of regime-change. So was the British Empire. So why can’t the American Empire manage it?

There are probably many reasons, but the main one is that old-style conquest just doesn’t work any more. The natives don’t have spears, they have Kalashnikovs. The world is now so awash with munitions that however swiftly the Abrams tank can sweep across the land and apparently conquer it, once the tank has arrived there, the soldiers inside it can’t get out, except in heavily-armed sorties from pre-fortified compounds.

The invaders can destroy the infrastructure of the country and disband its social systems, its police, its public services, but they can’t replace them because they are constantly, literally, under fire, not only from the people of the country, but from anybody in neighbouring countries who doesn’t happen to want the conquerors to be there, doesn’t want them to succeed in their objectives and sees, in the maintenance of chaos by random destruction, a way to keep them bogged down, leaving the world open for their own particular infiltrative brand of regime destruction.

God knows when or how that festering sore can be salved. The process cannot begin until the initial mistake is fully acknowledged and the outraged dragons of vengeance are no longer being nourished by brave gung-ho lies and glib posturings. If that day should one day come to Iraq, perhaps we can also hope that the innate internecine hostilities of its passionate people will burn out in a weariness with death, hatred and vain dominance, and let them walk in their streets again.

Civilization?

But again we have to ask the underlying question: What has happened to the human race that after thousands of years of civilization we are still unable to live in peace with our neighbours?

As individuals, in this country, we can, up to a point, manage to do this. In the square where I lived there were people of many types and colours living in different houses. If we didn’t like them we didn’t have a lot to do with them, but we didn’t shoot them, and certainly we didn’t buy an anti-tank gun and blow them up, house and family, and then take possession of their property. We put up with it or, as a last resort, we complained to the council or called the police, who dealt with it impersonally according to the law.

So why does this not happen in the big round square where nations live? The obvious reason has always been: because there isn’t any council with a real police force backed by impersonal law. This lack has been obvious for many decades. I have seen both the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, rise in hope and strength, and watched the former wither away in impotence and disdain, as the nations which had created the organisation and placed it in authority, shrugged it aside because they could not impose their will on it.

It has become fashionable to dismiss the United Nations as a complete waste of time and money because it is so cumbersome, slow to act and poorly supported, but the simple truth is that it has been deliberately betrayed by its own creators.

Today, now that international violence has finally been shown to be a self-destructive rather than a cost-effective option, the basic arithmetic of international relationships has to change; this time for good.

Now we have to realise that if the human race hopes to avoid committing mass suicide in the ecstasy of "regime changes" and doomed excursions into conquest that will otherwise result from the effects of climate change, nations must put together a proper United Nations, a supra-national body with fully independent dedicated members which is armed and empowered to act impersonally in the interests of the world as a whole, according to international law, rather than on behalf of any particular faction.

Perhaps, in 2007, we could allow ourselves to hope that Ban Ki-moon, successor to the unfortunate Kofi Annan as Secretary General of the UN, will have the courage - and at last be given the strength - to bring the dogs of hubris to heel.

Oliver Postgate was the creator of Bagpuss, the Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. His autobiography depicts his passage from grinning show-off to grisly old git, a journey that included not only a prison sentence but also a thirty-year period working with Peter Firmin in cow-shed and pig-sty, making small films. Oliver died on 8 December, 2008
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Theresa May's fight against burning injustice can start with the UN's anti-austerity treaty

The UK urgently needs to make sure social rights are protected. 

Fifty years ago this month the United Nations presciently adopted a treaty creating legal safety nets for vulnerable communities facing the effects of austerity in wealthier democracies. 

Although this treaty applies to all countries, rich and poor, in prosperity or austerity, this anniversary provides a timely reminder that the treaty has much to offer both those who are just managing and those who are unable to manage.

Admittedly the treaty's title does not trip easily off the tongue - it is called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, with protests against globalization expressed in the UK with Brexit, in America with Donald Trump and most recently in Italy and France, the Covenant, although international, places limits on globalisation, because it places vulnerability and community at its centre. 

The rights protected by the Covenant include the right to payment for work at a level which provides a "decent living for themselves and their families", the right of everyone to adequate food and housing and the right to the "continuous improvement of living conditions". There are also provisions, which oblige the government to make higher education progressively free, and a right to the highest attainment of health. 

The International Covenant is legally binding on the United Kingdom but the Covenant has been deprioritised by successive governments of all political persuasions. This is for a number of reasons, including a lack of knowledge about courts around the world which have dealt with these rights. 

Successive British governments have assumed that social justice rights are incapable of being protected by courts. In fact, this stems from a failure to look at how an increasing number of modern democracies, including most of Latin America, South Africa and some European states, effectively protect rights such as the highest standard of health and adequate housing. 

Many modern democracies regard social justice rights as reinforcing democracy and an essential component of the rule of law. It is no coincidence that this failure to keep up with social justice developments overseas has left those vulnerable and socially immobile without a legal remedy. 

Many of the rights in a sister Covenant, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are now reflected in UK law, such as the right to freedom of expression and belief. But there is, despite the NHS, no right to the highest attainable standard of health. This prompts the question: Why have the Prime Minister, the Labour and Liberal parties not called for the Covenant’s rights to be brought back home? This question is particularly pertinent now as the Prime Minister in her inaugural speech stated that her goal was to fight "against the burning injustice that if you are born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others".

The only attention paid by governments has been to report as required by the Covenant on how the UK has implemented the treaty, and then to consider the recommendations of the United Nations Committee overseeing the Covenant. This, however, does not provide a remedy for those receiving the half a million emergency food parcels that the Trussell Trust said that it distributed between April and September. 

Strategically, the UK needs to adopt a two-pronged policy. The first step is a simple and free international remedy, which 22 countries allow their citizens to use. The UK ought to ratify the International Protocol to the Covenant, which allows people to petition the UN Committee. As the system does not involve costs, there is no need for the government to provide legal aid. The advantage of this first step is that it would allow a decision to be reached as to whether for example, the UK government is fulfilling its duty to provide adequate nutrition to specific individuals by relying to such an extent on food banks.

Secondly, as Brexit means removing those in the UK from the protection of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, which enshrines some social justice rights, the UK urgently needs to ensure that social rights are protected. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights expressly protects human dignity, which it states is inviolable and which, as a specific right, is not found in the Human Rights Act or the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Charter also protects European dimensions of the rights of older people to live a life of dignity and independence, and a right of access to preventive health care, both of which are essential. It is not clear from the government’s Brexit plans so far that these rights will be continued.  A Bill of Rights, which is Human Rights Act Plus, however, would provide such an opportunity.

It may be tempting to argue that this is not the time to consider additional rights, and that rather than seek to expand human rights protection, all energies should be harnessed to defend the Human Rights Act. However, although the rights in the Human Rights Act are constitutionally essential, it was never designed to guard against social immobility or the wealth gap. The raison d’etre of human rights is that all rights are indivisible and equal and the truth is despite the despite the Act being called ‘human rights’, many essential human rights are missing. After fifty years it is time for the UK to reassess the potential of the International Covenant.

Professor Geraldine Van Bueren QC is Professor of International Human Rights Law, Queen Mary, London and Visiting Fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford.