Sunday, 20 March 2011

What you mean "legal" Kemo Sabay?

There's an old Mad Magazine* cartoon of The Lone Ranger and his trusty red indian sidekick Tonto surrounded by hostile natives. The caption reads as Tonto saying: "What you mean "we" Kemo Sabay?".

David Cameron is quoted over on Lord Ashdown's Politics Home blog as saying that the intervention in Lybia is "necessary, legal and right". The question is: what do you mean "legal" Mr Cameron?

There are so many moral and practical dilemmas in foreign intervention. What does "legal" mean in international law? What takes precedence? If an act is legal in your own national law, but "illegal" in international law, can you act anyway?  If an action is not in the interests of China or Russia and they veto it at the UN, the veto makes it "illegal" (apparently), but does that make it wrong? And if the action in Libya had been merely "necessary and right", but not "legal", should we not intervene? Surely if an action is "necessary and right", we should act to address the necessity and right the wrong, and not be hog-tied by the interests of China and Russia?

According to some (not all) opinion, the invasion of Iraq was "illegal", and deeply controversial, because it did not have UN backing. But by the same definition, the Kosovo intervention which raised no such controversy was also "illegal", but it has been deemed a qualified success. And the actions in Sierra Leone were just below the radar: nobody asked if they were legal or not, but they have been effective (so far) in stabilising that country.

On the other hand the long period on Tory non-intervention (some would say indifference) in the Bosnian crisis (before Tony Blair acted on the Kosovo events) was perfectly legal. And the blind eye that the international community turned on the horrific massacres in Rwanda was totally "legal" but, in my view, was immoral and wrong, as well as being immensely cowardly. In Bosnia and Croatia, thousands died "legally". In Rwanda a million and more ( and echoes of the crisis are still reverberating around the region), all of them murdered "legally" according to international law.

So what guide does "legality" give us in this vexed arena? Few would disagree that Gadafi is thug and a menace to his people and the world. But then so was Sadam. And Milosovic. And Taylor. And many others.

Should we have to wait for the UN, which provides extremely unreliable and unpredictable leadership on many of the world's problems, which bends to the will of the world's largest dictatorships, to give us the moral permission to do things that are "necessary and right"?

* could my memory be playing tricks....

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