An Immoral and Illegal War

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 painstakingly 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]

30 percent of children under five (1.26 million) will be at risk of death from malnutrition.

10 million people, including 5,210,000 children under five and pregnant and lactating women, will be “highly food insecure.”

2.5 million refugees will be created.

500,000 people will require medical care.

6.9 million people will require emergency water and sanitation intervention.

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:

Bill Bowring, “Bush and Blair Must See Law Has a Life of Its Own,” AlertNet, February 21, 2003.

Julie Mertus, “The Law(?) of Regime Change,” JURIST, February 20, 2003.

Thalif Deen, “Of Man and God and Law,” Asia Times, February 14, 2003.

Nathaniel Hurd, “UN SCR 1141 and Potential Use of Force Against Iraq,” December 6, 2002.


“Lawyers Statement on UN Resolution 1441 on Iraq,” November 27, 2002.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, “UN Resolution 1441: Compelling Saddam, Restraining Bush,” JURIST, November 21, 2002.

Marjorie Cohn, “UN Resolution 1441: Blackmailing the Security Council,” JURIST, November 21, 2002.

George P. Fletcher, “Did the UN Security Council Violate Its Own Rules in Passing the Iraq Resolution?,” CounterPunch, November 16, 2002.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, The Myth of Preemptive Self-Defense,” August 2002.     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:

Jonathan Steele, “Secret UN Paper Predicts 1.5m Iraqi Refugees,” The Guardian, February 15, 2003.

Jonathan Steele, “Counting the Dead,” The Guardian, January 29, 2003.

Tarik Kafala, “Analysis: Humanitarian Consequences of War,” BBC News Online, January 28, 2003.

For other discussions of the looming humanitarian disaster, see:

Oxfam International, which warns that war with Iraq “would lead to a massive humanitarian crisis.”

Alison McCook, “War Risks Further Public Health Damage in Iraq,” Reuters Health, February 21, 2003 (this discusses the Lancet report, just below).

“Special Report [on the health consequences of war in Iraq],” The Lancet, February 22, 2003.

Center for Economic and Social Rights, “The Human Cost of War in Iraq,” February 2003.

Hendawi Hamza, “Report: Death, Disease Await Iraqi Kids,” Associated Press, January 26, 2003 (this discusses the International Study Team report, just below).

International Study Team, “Our Common Responsibility: The Impact of a New War on Iraqi Children,” January 30, 2003.

“Open Letter to the Right Honourable Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the UK: Public Health and Humanitarian Effects of War on Iraq,” The Lancet, January 25, 2003.

Patricia Reaney, “Health Experts Warn of Massive Iraq Casualties,” Reuters, January 23, 2003 (discussing the open letter listed just above).     Return to text

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:

Beth Osborne Daponte, “A Case Study in Estimating Casualties from War and Its Aftermath: The 1991 Persian Gulf War” [“the number of Iraqis who died in 1991 from effects of the Gulf war or postwar turmoil approximates 205,500. There were relatively few deaths (approximately 56,000 to military personnel and 3,500 to civilians) from direct war effects. Postwar violence accounted for approximately 35,000 deaths. The largest component of deaths in this reconstruction derives from the 111,000 attributable to postwar adverse health effects. Of the total excess deaths in the Iraqi population, approximately 109,000 were to men, 23,000 to women, 74,000 to children.”].

(For the government’s resulting vendetta against Ms. Daponte, see Thomas Ginsberg, “War’s Toll: 158,000 Iraqis and a Researcher’s Position,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 2003.)

Jonathan Steele, “Counting the Dead,” The Guardian, January 29, 2003 [“the UN calculated that between 3,500 and 15,000 civilians died during the war (plus between 100,000 and 120,000 Iraqi troops)”].

Tarik Kafala, “Analysis: Humanitarian Consequences of War,” BBC, January 28, 2003 [“Estimates for civilian deaths as a direct result of the war range from 100,000 to 200,000”].

Thomas Ginsberg, “War’s Toll: 158,000 Iraqis and a Researcher’s Position,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 2003.

Francis A. Boyle, “United States War Crimes During the Persian Gulf War,” February 20, 1998.

“Needless Deaths in the Gulf War: Civilian Casualties During the Air Campaign and Violations of the Laws of War,” Human Rights Watch, 1991.

Ramsey Clark, “War Crimes: A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal.”     Return to text

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