Britain’s Defiance of the UN: The long history

by Mark Curtis

March 2003
The Blair government’s abandonment of the UN route over Iraq is its seventh violation of the UN and international law and confirms Britain’s role as an outlaw state. In fact, Whitehall has been disregarding the will of the UN for decades. Let us consider the evidence.

The military interventions against Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001 were conducted without UN authorisation and therefore illegal. In Afghanistan, the government could not claim to be acting in self-defence since Blair declared that “no specific credible threat” of terrorist action in Britain had been detected. Over Kosovo, then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook argued that Britain had “the right to use force in the case of overwhelming humanitarian necessity” – plainly untrue, since UN authorisation is required.

Britain and NATO also committed violations of international humanitarian law in the Kosovo campaign by conducting numerous raids on non-military targets such as a radio and television station, a heating plant and bridges, causing “excessive civilian casualties”, according to Human Rights Watch.Turning to Iraq, the four-day bombing campaign in December 1998 was clearly illegal, as are the “no fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq, both failing to receive UN authorisation. The government has argued that patrolling the zones is justified because of “overwhelming necessity” to defend Kurds in northern Iraq. This policy has not been applied to Turkey as it conducted brutal raids into northern Iraq to pursue Kurds.

Britain constantly blocked international action against apartheid South Africa, especially the application of full economic sanctions.

Many international lawyers argue that sanctions against Iraq – maintained largely by Britain and the US – are violations of international law. Even though applied by the UN, sanctions have killed hundreds of thousands of people and violate many UN covenants. A report written for the UN by Belgian law professor Marc Bossuyt notes that “the sanctions regime against Iraq is unequivocally illegal under existing international law and human rights law” and “could raise questions under the Genocide Convention”. Former US Attorney General Ramsay Clark has said the economic blockade is a weapon of mass destruction, “a crime against humanity, in the Nuremberg sense”.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has always said that securing a second security council resolution over Iraq was never “essential”, but simply “desirable”. The message from London has clearly been: we will work through the UN if it gives us want we want and defy it if it doesn’t. Whitehall’s position now is the same as in the invasion of Egypt in 1956. Anthony Nutting, then Conservative Foreign Office minister, explained that Britain refused to commit to a UN route to deal with Egyptian president Nasser, since “neither the security council nor the general assembly could give us what we wanted”.

Open defiance of the UN is a permanent feature of British foreign policy. In the last twenty-five years of the cold war, 1965-1990, Britain cast twice as many vetoes in the security council as the Soviet Union – 27 compared to 13, mainly to support the racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia. From the 1940s to the 1990s, Britain constantly blocked international action against apartheid South Africa, especially the application of full economic sanctions.

The Blair government is not simply ignoring the UN, but openly challenging it to support the creation of a new US-led imperial order.

In formerly secret documents from 1950, the Foreign Office noted that “it is clear that many of the objectives of British foreign policy are pursued independently of the United Nations and some, indeed, perhaps in spite of it”. It warned that the UN might exercise “ignorant or prejudiced outside interference” in Britain’s running of its then colonies, and stressed the need for Britain and the Commonwealth to “preserve their essential interests from United Nations interference”.

London is also the regular supporter at the UN of US aggression. When the US covertly organised the invasion of Guatemala in 1954, Britain abstained on Guatemala’s request for the Security Council to consider its complaints, and the request was rejected. President Eisenhower thanked Britain for its “willingness to cooperate in regard to the UN aspect” of US policy. The Guatemalan government was overthrown in favour of a succession of brutal dictatorships.

Forty years later, the Blair government supported the US’s illegal attacks on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998. Britain’s Attorney General – the government’s top legal officer – explained simply that “the legality of the US action… is a matter for the United States”.

The Blair government is not simply ignoring the UN, but openly challenging it to support the creation of a new US-led imperial order. Foreign Office Minister Mike O’Brien said in a speech in September 2002, that “if our peers accept that what we are doing [in Iraq] is a proper, indeed a moral, response to the situation we face, it will become a building block for the development of international law”.

In other words, if we invade other countries enough times under a moral pretext, and our peers (ie, NATO allies) accept it, we will rewrite the law. Plausibly, the Blair government hoped that Iraq would follow Kosovo and Afghanistan in enabling Britain and its allies to reshape international law to facilitate future aggression.

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