Reviewed by: Roger Smith
Author: Geoffrey Robertson QC
Publisher: Biteback Publishing
This is a fascinating - but somewhat frustrating - book. The fascination comes from its grappling with a major issue of our time: the possession, acquisition and threat of nuclear weapons. Its author rightly castigates international lawyers and NGOs on the subject: ‘Why does this issue never feature in the campaigns of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch?' The frustration comes from the uneasy coupling of discussion of the legality of nuclear arms with a preliminary 150-odd pages on human rights abuses against perceived opponents by what Geoffrey Robertson calls the ‘mullahs’ of Iran.
The link between the two is challenged by Robertson’s own text. He concedes with little equivocation that Iran’s purpose in acquiring nuclear weapons is not really, for all the rhetoric (misleadingly, it would seem) quoted by Israel and the US, to unleash the final apocalypse on the former. It is for the preservation of power in a world where neglecting to pursue nuclear weapons leaves you vulnerable to losing it - as with Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam in Iraq. This is not to denigrate the assertion that Iran’s theocratic rulers have ruthlessly consolidated their power through the mass execution of prisoners and wide intimidation of their population.
The book’s value really lies in its second half. This convincingly advocates the position that the acquisition and, indeed ultimately the possession, of nuclear weapons should be illegal under international law. The realism of this aim might seem questionable when opposed to the brute realities of power, but Robertson is surely right in saying that the advance of human rights law over the last decades combined with the dangers of escalating proliferation makes the case ever more compelling: ‘Human rights organisations should begin their lobbying and campaigning to ban the bomb on the basis that it is contrary to the right to life and the right not to be subjected to inhumane treatment and torture.’
Roger Smith is former director of human rights group Justice