Saturday, May 7, 2005

A note from the frontlines of democracy

To my vast amusement, as a resident Commonwealth citizen I was allowed to vote in the general election on Thursday.

The voting process seemed a bit, well, amateurish. You’re assigned one polling station to go to on the day. If you don’t like it, you need to apply for a postal vote. It makes the queues short and the electoral roll small, but the atmosphere is pretty quiet. First past the post voting is weird as well: one big childish cross in one box.

You could vote in crayon.

Anyway, I did my bit to get a LibDem elected in Cambridge, ousting the New Labour incumbent (who was I believe anti-war personally but has suffered for the sins of her PM).

In recent weeks the papers were filled with new revelations about the Attorney-General’s advice on the use of force against Iraq, but I doubt it affected the result. Those who opposed the government on the war had long since made up their minds.

Iraq was more of a lightning-rod for disaffection with Blairite government than a pivotal issue itself.

The whole “Iraq memo” scandal strikes me as odd anyway. The allegation is that the Attorney-General was pressured into changing his mind. It’s a fine argument: it seems in the original advice he lay out an arguable case for the legality of the war, but cautioned other States might disagree as might international courts. (Indeed, almost all international lawyers outside the US did disagree with him, so it was a worthy note of caution.)

Later he stated, in summary form, his “position”: being that war was legal, but without the caveats. More than anything it lends to the impression that nothing comes out of Blair’s Number 10 that isn’t heavily spun and that Cabinet is often not fully briefed.

Frankly, the idea of the memo is a little silly. It appears to have been demanded by the head of the Defence Force to provide “legal cover” against subsequent war crimes prosecutions.

If true, this shows a very poor understanding of international law on the part of Admiral Sir Michael Boyce. The only Court he could have had in mind is the ICC. The ICC will not have any jurisdiction over a government’s decision to go to war until the parties to the Rome Statute agree on a definition of the crime of “aggression”. (Don’t hold your breath: the UN has been battling over that for 50 years.)

Even once defined, it could not apply retrospectively to the Iraq conflict. Further, the legality of going to war (“jus ad bello”) cannot affect the legality of the conduct of the war (“jus in bello” or the law of war crimes and humanitarian law).

Put another way, the fact that a war is “legal” in no way means that the side that is “right” is incapable of committing war crimes.

But of course, the real reason for commissioning the advice was to try and bolster a moral case on the rather tortured ground that what is legal is also right. The kind of confusion an ex-barrister PM might make, but not one that cuts much ice with sensible people.

The protestors’ argument, that because it was illegal it was also wrong, is much more intuitive.

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