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How the Occupation of Iraq Imperils International Law


The day after the truck bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan remarked, “The blue flag has never been so viciously assaulted as it was yesterday.” Whether executed by remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, or foreign jihadis, or both working in concert, the attack was the result of a steady evisceration of the United Nations and international law by the United States.

“Preemptive War” Violates the U.N. Charter

One year after the September 11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush invoked that tragedy to announce his new national security strategy of “preemptive war.” Citing Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and warning that Hussein would likely share them with al-Qaeda terrorists, Bush built his case for waging war on Iraq.

It was clear to the millions of people who marched in the streets before the war began, and it is now evident to most people, that there was no danger to “preempt” in Iraq. Severely weakened by the first Gulf War, 12 years of punishing sanctions, and intrusive weapons inspections, Hussein’s military forces mounted little resistance to the U.S.-U.K.’s “almost biblical force” against the Iraqi people.

Moreover, Bush’s preemption doctrine violates the Charter of the United Nations, which specifies that only the Security Council can sanction the use of force and it can only be used in self-defense. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was not undertaken in self-defense and it was never authorized by the Security Council.

The Security Council Stands Up to Bush…Sort Of

In spite of the Bush administration’s threats and bribes in its attempts to secure the passage of a resolution putting the U.N.’s imprimatur on an armed invasion of Iraq, the Security Council held firm. Bush then cobbled together prior Council resolutions, none of which authorized force in Iraq, to justify his illegal war.

But the Security Council did not condemn the invasion. And the Council legitimized the U.S. and the U.K. as the occupying “Authority” of Iraq when it passed Resolution 1483.

The resolution also provided for the appointment of a U.N. Special Representative to coordinate, in conjunction with “the Authority,” humanitarian assistance and reconstruction activities in Iraq. In effect, the Special Representative would function in a secondary capacity; the occupying power maintained ultimate authority over the occupation and the awarding of the lucrative reconstruction contracts.

Kofi Annan appointed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, as Special Representative. Mr. Vieira de Mello was one of the 23 people killed in the bombing of the Baghdad U.N. headquarters last week.

On Monday, the U.S. blocked the adoption of a Security Council resolution which would enhance the protection of U.N. and other humanitarian aid workers, because it called for the prosecution of war criminals in the International Criminal Court. The Council then adopted the resolution without reference to the ICC.

Bush removed the United States’ signature from the ICC’s statute last year out of fear that he and other officials could be prosecuted for war crimes, even though the ICC would only act if the national courts were unwilling to do so. The U.S. also pushed a resolution through the Security Council which provides immunity from jurisdiction to peacekeepers from countries which have not ratified the ICC’s statute.

The U.S. has extracted immunity agreements from 37 countries and cut off military assistance to 35 others who refuse to sign such accords. This defiance by the U.S. further undercuts the international rule of law.

Why Was the United Nations Targeted?

In the wake of the worst attack on the U.N. in its 58-year history, people are asking why the world’s premier peacekeeping organization was targeted. There is understandable resentment against the United States for the devastating bombings and military attacks against the people of Iraq. The occupiers have been unable to deliver safe streets, clean water, electricity and jobs, and they have conducted heavy-handed searches during the occupation.

The U.N. is in Baghdad, in the words of Mr. Vieira de Mello, “to assist the Iraqi people and those responsible for the administration of this land to achieve freedom, the possibility of managing their own destiny and determining their own future.”

Sergio Vieira de Mello sympathized with the Iraqi people. “It must be one of the most humiliating periods in their history,” he observed. “Who would like to see their country occupied?”

But, to many in the Arab world, the United States and the United Nations are indistinguishable. They see the U.N. as a tool of the U.S.

Mohammed Hindawi, an engineer in Cairo, said, “The U.N. did nothing for the Iraqis during the war. They arrived in Baghdad when the coast was clear. People expected the U.N.’s support, and they didn’t get it. It’s payback time.”

Mohsen Farouk, a carpenter in Cairo, noted, “It was just a matter of time. The U.N. is just a puppet of the U.S., and anyone who is angry with the U.S. is likely to consider the U.N. a target.”

The people responsible for the attack on the U.N. are also likely mindful of the devastation wreaked upon Iraqis by 12 years of sanctions.

Following the first Gulf War, the United States manipulated the Security Council into imposing a harsh regime of economic sanctions, which have led to the deaths of an estimated one million Iraqis.

Give U.N. Authority in Iraq

The Bush administration is lobbying for a new Security Council resolution which would urge other countries to send troops to help stabilize Iraq. The U.S., however, would maintain military control over all forces. Such a resolution would, in the words of The New York Times, provide “United Nations cover to the American operation.”

“Operation Iraqi Freedom” has opened a Pandora’s Box of terrorism in Iraq. The only hope for restoring peace and security is for the United States to step aside and allow the United Nations to take over the reconstruction. If the U.S. continues to insist on unilateral authority in Iraq, it will be sucked deeper into a quagmire from which there is no exit. And it will further weaken the U.N. and international law.

MARJORIE COHN, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, is executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild. She can be reached at:


Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild. She writes, speaks and does media about human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Her most recent book is “Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @marjoriecohn.

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