‘Are Syria air strikes legal?’ asks the BBC as part of its lead story today. The answer is that nobody is very sure. But personally I do wonder: ‘Why should we even care?’
Is beheading people legal? Is crucifying people illegal? Probably not. But aside from some vague talk last month of international inspectors being sent in to Isis-controlled areas to try to collate evidence of war-crimes I have seen very little written about this.
This debate over the ‘legality’ of hitting Isis reminds me of nothing so much as the conversation after Osama bin Laden was shot in the head. I recall back then being on an edition of Question Time where, rather than expressing relief that a very bad man had been killed, everybody started talking about the legality or otherwise of the operation and then – save us – whether American forces had or had not buried the carcass of the dead terrorist with the proper Islamic funeral rites. Soon the conversation was not about the thousands of victims but about the niceties of Islamic sea-burial, whether they were wholly followed through and so on.
Personally I am not particularly bothered about whether it is ‘legal’ to strike Isis. International law is very far from being the set of Sinai-like tablets which young people in particular now seem to think it is. It is a very new, very flexible and completely evolving concept. Besides, lots of good things are not legal under international law. The campaign to save thousands of Kosovan Muslims in 1998 was not ‘legal’. In fact it was very much ‘illegal’ under international law. But it was still the right thing to do.
Today when I hear politicians and others scrabbling around to see if a lawyer can tell them what is right or wrong I hold my head in my hands. Asking whether something is ‘legal’ under international law isn’t a serious question for serious powers. It’s the mark of a state in decline. It is something people ask when they’re stalling for time, don’t have the kit or the will or desire to do something. The only things our politicians should be asking are whether our involvement can do any good and whether it is in the strategic and moral interests of this country. That’s it. The rest, I’m afraid, is just people making stuff up.
Douglas will speak against the motion ‘Iraq and Syria are lost causes: intervention can’t help’ at 7pm on Wednesday 22 October at Church House, SW1. Speakers for the motion include John Redwood and Patrick Cockburn. For tickets, click here.