Regime change and self defence

The case for regime change falls within self-defence - provided it is done without cowardice

Dateline 30 September 2005

It is noticeable that the coalition of the willing includes mostly countries governed by Anglo-American Common Law, such as the UK, USA and Australia while many Civil Law jurisdictions, such as France and Germany, were hostile to Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is possible to make too much of this: Ireland and Canada are both Common Law states which refused to support Iraqi liberation, while most of continental Europe (which is entirely Civil Law) backed the coalition, but there is a small trend at work here.

Plainly, Iraqi liberation is covered by the Common Law doctrine of self-defence, which can be pre-emptive and, oddly, can involve defending others. If I see someone threatening you, I am entitled to intervene.
My response has to be proportionate. Shouting abuse at someone is assault. Hitting someone with an axe because they are abusive is a disproportionate response. I am allowed, if it is proportionate to the threat, to kill the aggressor.
The threat has to be real. You don’t have to wait for the other person to strike first, but you cannot disable someone just in case. It has to be something that a reasonable person would believe was a threat.
That Saddam was, on an ongoing basis, involved in crimes against humanity is self-evident. It is also clear that the response was proportionate, since Saddam has been removed by less violence than he was inflicting. The anti-war Iraq Body Count estimates deaths from violence in Iraq over the past two and a half years to be between 26,165 and 29,478. Only about one third were caused by Coalition forces. This compares to between 20,000 and 40,000 violent deaths a year under Saddam, many of them under torture.

Recent assertive American foreign policies during the Clinton era failed the self-defence test. Bombing from 7,500 feet - at least where it is the sole response - can almost never be self-defence. Boots on the ground are necessary for the response to be proportionate.

To take an individual example, if I see someone pointing a gun at you, I can shoot that person. The response is proportionate, and therefore covered by self-defence. What I cannot do is drop a bomb on that person killing everyone in a three block radius because a) that is not proportionate and b) it doesn't defend anyone, you are also killed.

Clinton's overriding fear of exposing American volunteer soldiers to any danger led to some pretty foul calculations - eg, one American life is equivalent to 85,000 Rwandans - but it also led to illegal actions.
It is impossible to defend, on either legal or moral grounds, Clinton’s bombing of Serbia or Iraq during the 1990s. International law is not defined by the UN – though incidentally, neither of these actions had UN support – it is a Common Law jurisdiction, defined by precedent. I suppose that is why most of the countries which genuinely understand Common Law justice supported Operation Iraqi Freedom. The real shame is that the cowardice of the forty second President meant that it was not done sooner.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 30 September 2005

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