U.K. secretary Reid: we must revise international law

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies on 3 April 2006, Secretary of State for Defence John Reid emphasised changes to the strategic landscape. Reid is correct – what is the chance that action will be taken in time?

“Today I would like to move on and widen that debate to address new elements – in particular to make some observations about the international legal framework in which we operate. I am not myself a lawyer but, as a practising politician, I understand how law continues to evolve in response to real changes in the world.

“For centuries conflict between tribes, cities and states was completely unbridled and savage. Very gradually, mankind developed a range of conventions that they applied to constrain and moderate what is in essence a brutal activity.

“Eventually, these agreements became rules, which became laws. Much has been achieved in current legal frameworks. But warfare continues to evolve, and, in its moral dimensions, we have now to cope with a deliberate regression towards barbaric terrorism by our opponents.

“A few weeks ago I spoke to students at King’s College here in London about the uneven nature of the modern battlefield, and the unconstrained enemy ranged against us. Against this background, I called for all of us to be swifter to support, and slower to condemn our armed forces.

On April 5th Secretary Reid spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he summarized the thrust of the above April 3rd speech:

“On Monday I made a speech in the UK about how the international community needs to adapt to face this new threat. I made the point there that International Law has developed on the basis of a set of values which must be preserved, but I called for a debate about whether International Law, including conventions such as the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, needed to be strengthened, in the face of the new challenges.

“When an inherited set of international values, laws and conventions, comes face to face with more recently developed and hitherto unenvisaged circumstances and threats, our response should not be to abandon those values, laws and conventions but to develop and strengthen them to encompass these new circumstances.

UPDATE: Belmont Club offers a comprehensive analysis of the Reid speech and its implications:

Reid’s points taken together comprehensively call into question the international constitutional system. It is unlikely the issues raised by those questions will be resolved any time soon because those issues are typically addressed by the victors after a war (Utrecht, Westphalia, Vienna, Versailles, etc) to codify a consensus that has emerged in the course of events. All one can say with the conflict still in progress is that current concepts of the Rules of War, pre-emption and territorial sovereignty will be called into question; that they will change under the pressure of future events is all but certain; but what they will change into is anybody’s guess.


The issues that Reid raised were all prefigured in one way or the other by the US experience from 2002 to the present. They find their echoes in the Plame Affair. Guantanamo Bay. The McCain Amendment. In Iraq. That these problems are now coming to the general attention of Europe suggests that the problems themselves are real. If so, there is no Last Helicopter out of the situation unless it can take us away from the 21st century.