Mullahs without Mercy
Would the world be safer if lawyers were in charge? Geoffrey Robertson seems to think so. In this thought-provoking read, the QC offers a means to achieve a nuclear-free world: by reforming international legal architecture and abolishing atomic weapons completely.
His case is clear-cut. Nukes are illegal on human rights grounds because of their capacity to cause immeasurable harm. Anyone who builds a bomb should be tried for crimes against humanity. For countries that already have them, the only option is disarmament under a new global regime. Et voilà: one nuclear-free world.
Robertson argues that this is the only option, as current arrangements have failed to stop proliferation. This failure will have a positive result: it will force us to develop a more comprehensive solution.
He focuses heavily on Iran, spending 150 pages describing how awful its rulers are and how devastating it will be when they acquire the bomb. Few readers outside Tehran will disagree that an Iranian bomb is a bad thing but it feels excessive to labour the point over a third of the book.
The section dedicated to nuclear weapons is more interesting. Robertson presents an engaging history of proliferation, bringing developments up to date with a synthesis of the current Iran-Israel standoff. He outlines the many problems with current treaties, and demonstrates that present rules are suboptimal at best.
When he turns to international law, the highlight is a compelling chapter entitled ‘Can Israel attack Iran?’ This looks at the legal basis for an Israeli strike based on the precedent set by a bizarre 1837 naval skirmish. Robertson turns the tables, arguing that Iran has legal justification to attack Israel, given ongoing sabre-rattling. The chapter has an unintended result: to underline how impractical international law can appear to policymakers.
This is the biggest problem with the book. Despite the intriguing arguments and anecdotes, Robertson’s plan remains unpersuasive. He spends little time on the political implications of disarmament for nuclear power. Given the complexity of the Trident debate in the UK, the assumption that nuclear states will simply give up their weapons freely feels a little far-fetched.
The book fails to give international efforts on Iran a fair hearing, and assumes diplomacy is doomed to fail. It is rumoured a new push will come this winter, now that Barack Obama has won a second term. A successful outcome would undermine this book’s central point. For now, unfortunately for Robertson, the diplomats are still running the show.
Greg Falconer is a former civil servant at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mullahs Without Mercy: Human rights and nuclear weapons
Geoffrey Robertson QC
Biteback Publishing | 256pp | £14.99
Barack Obama, Iran, nuclear proliferation, nuclear weapons