The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Brave Boys and Petty Legalisms

The Secretary of State for Defence and area of outstanding natural fatuity, John Reid, has declared himself dissatisfied with the current state of international law. Such dissatisfaction is not uncommon among war criminals - both Saddam Hussein and the late lamented Slobodan Milosevic were discourteous enough to express doubts as to the legitimacy of their trials - but Reid is unusual in that he has not waited for the indictment before making his reservations known. This is, of course, an encouraging continuation of the Blairite tradition of applied foresight, which has so thoroughly protected us from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and may shortly help rescue civilisation from the Iranian nuclear deterrent.

Reid claimed that the UK and its allies are being "hamstrung" in three areas: "the treatment of prisoners, when to mount a pre-emptive strike, and when to intervene to stop a humanitarian crisis". The last of the three is easily the most convincing, since the UK and its allies have never, in fact, intervened to stop a humanitarian crisis. They have managed to exacerbate one or two, notably in Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor; paradoxically enough, the Government's scrupulous adherence to the outmoded conventions of international law does not seem to have inhibited the progress of these disasters. The reason for this is clear: according to Reid, the conventions were created over fifty years ago "when the world was almost unrecognisable".

"We are finding an enemy which obeys no rules whatsoever", he said, referring to what he called "barbaric terrorism". In the 1950s, Britain's only experience of terrorists had been with the likes of Irgun and the Mau Mau, both of which obeyed the rules and were non-barbaric. In the face of the changes which the last half-century has wrought, "serious questions" must be asked about whether we should change international law or simply keep on circumventing the laws we already have. On the question of whether people should be detained indefinitely without trial or removed to countries where they can be tortured, Reid oozed impassioned moralism: he said that it is not "sufficient just to say [Guantánamo] is wrong".

Reid noted that "terrorist groups were trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction", though it is not clear whether he expressed any support for a tightening of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty or the introduction of restrictions on arms sales. He also noted that other threats might develop: "Not al-Qaida. Not Muslim extremism. Something none of us are thinking about at the moment." This is, obviously, the natural next stage for New Labour foreign policy. From illegally pre-empting the nonexistent but conceivable, we must progress to legislating against the perilous but unimaginable. Only then will the world be reasonably safe to continue confidently in the knowledge that the war about civilisation may potentially have been brought within measurable distance of its next victory against the forces of reaction.


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