Lesson from Iraq: don’t ignore international law

Photograph of Mary Ellen O’Connell

Of all the writing about the 5th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, one of the more interesting pieces is by Mary Ellen O’Connell (pictured) of Notre Dame Law School. In Learning from the Iraq War: The Wisdom of International Law, she argues that the most tangible lesson is that the US ignores international law at its peril.

Going into Iraq, we ignored the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of force except in self-defense or with Security Council authorization. Once in Iraq, we ignored the Hague Regulations, requiring us to put a stop to looting and to make only necessary changes to local law and government. We ignored the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit secret detention and abuse of prisoners of the kind we saw at Abu Ghraib.

The talk on Iraq is all about what went wrong, whether the surge is working, and when we can get out. We hear virtually nothing about international law and look set to repeat our mistakes. Violating the law has cost our nation and Iraq dearly. It has denied us the guidance of rules based on long experience and moral consensus. We have lost standing in the world, a literal fortune, and precious lives. Rather than internalizing the lesson of law violation in Iraq, we continue to defy the law in serious and self-destructive ways.

At some point, sooner or later, America needs to understand that international law does indeed apply to everyone — including America. Otherwise any US action against any other nation breaking the law is nothing but hypocrisy. (Hat-tip to Blog Them Out of the Stone Age.)

2 Replies to “Lesson from Iraq: don’t ignore international law”

  1. Anyone would think that this was the first time that the USA had flagrantly ignored international law.

  2. @Sweet Sister Morphine: Of course the history of the last 60 years is littered with examples of the US deciding that the law doesn’t apply to them — and it isn’t the first time Australia’s been an accomplice. You’d just think that somewhere along the way someone would realise that long-term it’s counter-productive.

    Sorry, I just realised what I said.

    The US isn’t the only naughty country either, of course. I need to say that, however, because some think-headed people seem to think that any criticism of the specific actions of one nation make you (1) anti-everything related to that nation and (2) pro-everything else done by every other nation. More and more I think that basic logic needs to be taught in primary school.

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