An Illegal and Immoral War

March 3, 2003 (revised March 23)

Have we gone mad?

Are we actually ready to repudiate the world's commitment to a regime of law among nations, a commitment that began in earnest with the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, took fledgling form in the League of Nations and the World Court, and culminated in the 1945 founding of the United Nations?

Are we truly intent on fracturing, perhaps beyond repair, an international order for peace and respect among nations that has been painstakenly assembled over more than a century?

This is the choice facing Americans as our government moves ever closer to this breach of humankind's hopes.

Under international law, military action is lawful only when specifically authorized by the United Nations Security Council or undertaken in self-defense against an existing or imminent armed attack.  [1]

The Bush administration spurns this legal framework, even though our constitution provides that treaties we have signed--such as the U.N. Charter--form part of the supreme law of our land.  [2]

We are not under attack by Iraq--quite the opposite--and the Security Council has not approved military action.

The U.S. at times seems to suggest that individual member states have the right to use force to "enforce" Security Council resolutions that don't themselves authorize force, but the administration doesn't actually believe that.

We could be sure of this in an instant if, for example, several Arab nations decided to attack Israel to "enforce" the dozens of Security Council resolutions Israel has been violating for decades.

No, an attack on Iraq would be aggression in its most primal form, the crime for which we hung Nazi officials at Nuremberg.  [3]

If abandoning the rule of law seems too insignificant an objection to Americans, are we prepared to accept moral responsibility for the destruction of Iraq?

The world's moral leaders have spoken.

The Pope has called the war a "defeat for humanity."  [4]

South Africa's Nelson Mandela, the living embodiment of opposition to apartheid, warns that Bush will "plunge the world into a holocaust."  [5]

The heads of Great Britain's Anglican and Roman Catholic churches issued a rare joint statement declaring that "doubts still persist" about the moral legitimacy of a war.  [6]

The World Council of Churches has welcomed "the united and consistent message of heads of churches of every Christian tradition around the world against this war."  [7]

We already know what will happen if Bush launches his war.

According to the British physicians' group Medact, "credible estimates of the total possible deaths on all sides during the conflict and the following three months range from 48,000 to over 260,000. ... Additional later deaths from post-war adverse health effects could reach 200,000."  [8]

A confidential U.N. report forecasts a "humanitarian emergency" in the event of war:  [9]
As a consequence of this lack of sanitation, another U.N. report predicts that the outbreak of diseases "in epidemic if not pandemic proportions" is "very likely."  [10]

Waiting for war has already psychologically traumatized the children of Iraq. As five-year-old Shelma described to a reporter for the Independent, a London newspaper, "They come from above, from the air, and will kill us and destroy us. I can explain to you that we fear this every day and every night."

Assem, another five-year-old, put it this way: "They have guns and bombs and the air will be cold and hot and we will burn very much."  [11]

Of course, many Iraqi children have been spared these fears.

They're already dead.

In 1999, UNICEF estimated that half a million children under the age of five had died as a result of the Gulf War and the subsequent U.N. sanctions on Iraq.  [12]

Do Americans support the slaughter of Iraqi children?

Is it true, as John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist and expert on U.S. public opinion about war, has said, that Americans don't care about foreign casualties?  [13]

Certainly then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright exemplified this tradition when, asked about the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, she affirmed that "we think the price is worth it."  [14]

In response, I can only quote our president: If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.  [15]

And now the American people must decide if the destruction of Iraq--and the immolation of its children--is a further price we will ask the Iraqi people to pay.


1. For other analyses of the legality of a U.S./U.K. attack on Iraq, see: Links to Opinions on Legality of the War.     Return to text

2. Article VI, Clause 2, of the Constitution provides that "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding."     Return to text

3. The text of the Nuremberg proceedings is available online at the Avalon Project.     Return to text

4. "Pope Says 'No' to War in Iraq," Reuters, January 13, 2003.     Return to text

5. Japan Mathebula, "Nelson Mandela Calls Bush Shortsighted and Arrogant on Iraq; Implies Racism," Associated Press, January 30, 2003.     Return to text

6. "Full Text of Archbishops' Statement on Iraq," The Guardian, February 20, 2003.

Stephen Bates, "Church Leaders Doubt Morality of War," The Guardian, February 20, 2003.     Return to text

7. Executive Committee, World Council of Churches, "Statement Against Military Action in Iraq," February 18-21, 2003.     Return to text

8. Medact, "Collateral Damage: The Health and Environmental Costs of War on Iraq," January 2003.     Return to text

9. U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, "Integrated Humanitarian Contingency Plan for Iraq and Neighbouring Countries," January 7, 2003.     Return to text

This report is discussed in:
For other discussions of the looming humanitarian disaster, see:

10. The report, "Likely Humanitarian Scenarios," dated December 10, 2002, is marked "STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL."     Return to text

This report is discussed in:

"UN Prepares for Huge Iraqi Casualties," BBC, January 7, 2003.

11. Leonard Doyle, "Vulnerable but Ignored: How Catastrophe Threatens the 12 million Children of Iraq," The Independent, February 12, 2003.

See also Suzanne Goldenberg, "Where the Young Learn that Fear Is a Way of Life," The Guardian, January 27, 2003.     Return to text

12. 1999 Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Surveys.     Return to text

This followed the deaths of between 100,000 and 200,000 Iraqis of all ages during or shortly after the war. See:

13. Thomas Ginsberg, "War's Toll: 158,000 Iraqis and a Researcher's Position," Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 2003. John Mueller also said "When we ask people point-blank in polls, they say it does matter. But the polling evidence suggests it really doesn't in the end. ... How many American lives is worth one Somali life? Not one."     Return to text

14. Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked about these sanctions in an interview by Leslie Stahl on the May 12, 1996, edition of the TV program "60 Minutes." Stahl asked, "We have heard that over half a million children have died. I mean, that's more than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" To this question Madeline Albright responded, "I think this is a very hard choice. But the price-- we think the price is worth it."     Return to text

15. "The State of the Union," January 28, 2003.     Return to text

          Update History

March 7: Four newest references added to footnote 1, on the illegality of an attack on Iraq.

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