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2005-02-25

Wrong reason (updated) 

Norman Geras of normblog presents a short excerpt from a longer post by Julian Ku at Opinio Juris on the question: how important is the debate about the legality of the Iraq war? I repeat the excerpt here for convenience:
I can't help thinking that the only reason Kosovo is uncontroversial and the Iraq War remains controversial (among international lawyers) is that most international lawyers supported Kosovo but opposed Iraq on policy grounds.
Now while I agree with an earlier post at normblog that the legality issue should not be decisive, the quote gives the wrong reason for why Iraq and Kosovo are seen as different by many. It is not an issue of 'policy' or 'policy grounds'. Rather, the basic moral scenario faced in the two situations was different.

In Kosovo, a totalitarian government used support from one part of the population to exert massive violence, including a rapidly worsening policy of torture and killings as well as a shut-down of all education and health services, on another part of its population that openly challenged the government. The international coalition sided with the victims to protect them from the government. It launched a campaign of air bombardments that was ostensibly designed to minimise the number of casualties. Nevertheless, the campaign killed 500 Serb civilians as well as maybe around 2000 other victims.

In Iraq, an extremely totalitarian government had been suppressing its population for decades. Opposition had been cruelly persecuted in the past, but was barely noticeable in the current period. There was no conspicuous ongoing attempt on the part of the population to get rid of its dictator. The international coalition decided to champion a revolutionary cause that was not actively pursued by the oppressed population. It invaded at a cost of, until today, c. 16000 confirmed civilian deaths and tens of thousands of other victims, many of them in poorly equipped military divisions that were subjected to relentless air and artillery bombardments.

In both cases, the order of magnitude of the number of casualties was broadly in line with expectations before military activity commenced. The moral case for taking military means was stronger in Kosovo, and expected and actual victims were an order of magnitude less there than in Iraq.

I would argue it is possible to believe that both the Kosovo and Iraq wars were ultimately illegal, further that the Kosovo war was nevertheless morally legitimate, and that the Iraq war was not.

UPDATE: This post has been criticised for alluding that cruel persecution of the opposition in Iraq had ebbed at the time immediately preceding the invasion. I did not want to claim such a thing, I agree that the cruelty of the regime was unchanged in principle. I only wanted to highlight that there was relatively little opposition activity in Iraq itself at the time of the invasion. If a people (I'm aware that the notion is problematic here) decides in a certain period that the personal sacrifice required for an attempt to overthrow a powerful, violent dictator is not worth it, how can a foreign power have the moral right to force this sacrifice (in terms of numerous casualties) on that people through an invasion?


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