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Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules [Paperback]

Philippe Sands
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Book Description

March 8 2005

A coruscating account of how the Bush and Blair administrations are breaking the law and trying to rewrite the rules...

After the Second World War America and Britain led the creation of a new law-based international order, outlawing war and its excesses, protecting human rights and promoting free trade. Why is the US now undermining so many of those very laws?

Leading international lawyer Philippe Sands has been involved in high-profile cases including Guantanamo and Pinochet. In Lawless World he draws on disturbing material to show how America has reneged on agreements governing war, torture and the environment – with Britain often turning a blind eye or colluding in some of the worst violations. In recent years America has abandoned the Kyoto Protocol and the Statute of the International Criminal Court, ignored human rights standards at Abu Ghraib and disregarded the UN’s prohibition of pre-emptive force. Are we on the verge of a new world order where the most powerful nations can put aside the rules that no longer suit them?

Lawless World explains why we need global rules, examines why recent American and British actions endanger international justice, and asks, what does the future hold?


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From Publishers Weekly

Sands, a British international lawyer and law professor, delivers a cool, reasoned lashing to the Bush administration for leading—and to Tony Blair for colluding with—a "full-scale assault" on the international rule of law, in this richly detailed survey of modern international legal disputes. Since FDR and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter after WWII, putting in place a rules-based system limiting the use of force, protecting human rights and promoting fair economic liberalization, the world has seen a transformation of international relations, Sands explains, most dramatically marked by Bush's decision to "go it alone." Tracking the current administration's "efforts to rewrite international law into irrelevance," Sands covers the Pinochet case, the creation of the International Criminal Court, U.S. abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the U.S.'s selectively multilateralist policy vis-à-vis global free trade, and the "disgraces" of Guantánamo, Iraq and Abu Ghraib. The author also presents a series of dense but lucidly written legal stories to illustrate how the Bush administration's unilateralism has had egregious consequences for 21st-century efforts to make the world safer, cleaner and more just. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Phillipe Sands, QC is a practising barrister in the Matrix Chambers and a professor of international law at University College, London. He appears regularly on news and current affairs programmes in the UK and abroad, reviews and writes for the British broadsheets and has been involved in many of the recent high profile cases at the World Court.


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Although international law has a long history, it is only in recent years that it has emerged as a more regular feature of modern political life. Read the first page
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lawless World March 15 2006
Format:Hardcover
Philippe Sands is a British lawyer with international law experience in the negotiations for the 1992 Climate Change Convention and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as well as in international law cases such as the Pinochet extradition case and the Guantánamo Bay and Belmarsh detainee cases. Sands’ thesis is that while the US and the UK led the effort to create a rules-based international system during the 1940s (1941 Atlantic Charter, 1945 Bretton Woods Agreements and 1949 Geneva Conventions), this is in sharp contrast to the post-Cold War era, and especially the post-9/11 era, during which the US has declared itself above the law of nations and the UK has struggled with its divided loyalty between Europe and US. The Atlantic Charter, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill before the US entered World War II, was a declaration of political and economic liberalism, self-determination, respect for human rights, enmity towards Nazi Germany and collective security. Bretton Woods represented the beginning of a new international economic order under the International Monetary Fund (responsible for economic stability), the World Bank (responsible for economic development) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (responsible for free and open trade). The four Geneva Conventions were adopted in order to prevent future wartime abuses with respect to the victims of war, e.g., prisoners of war and civilians.
In making the case that the US has moved away from the liberal internationalist principles of the Atlantic Charter, Sands moves through a number of high profile international law issues ranging from Pinochet to the ‘war on terror’.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction to international law June 16 2005
By R. Spottiswood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Before starting, I must say that I do not know much about international law, though I have spent a lot of time observing international affairs. This book sets out what international law is, how it has been made, and how and why America is refusing to follow it. The first chapters deal specifically with the history of international law. Basically, it was essentially begun by America during World War II, with a lot of British help, as a system of protecting individuals from abuse by foreign governments. It expanded to protect individuals from abuse by their own governments as well. The Pinochet case, which the author spends a lot of time on, expanded it further, if controversially, to the idea that a head of state cannot claim immunity from a charge of torture or murder or genocide with the defence that they were official state actions. As far as I can tell, it accurately reflects the view of international law outside of America.

The next few chapters mostly deal with America's modern stance on international law. First off, the author demonstrates that America has no problem with non-Americans being held accountable to international law, including international tribunals over war crimes. He then demonstrates that America also has no problems obeying international economic law. His theory is that this is because economic laws help the US, so it sees no need to ignore and denigrate them - yet. Then comes America's stance on international law. He provides general evidence and specific examples, such as the Kyoto Agreement and the International Criminal Court, of international laws and areas that America has withdrawn itself from.

The last chapters deal mainly with what America has chosen to do with its self-declared freedom from international law and accountability: torture. Specifically, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. He lays out the legal arguments that the people confined there are outside international law, and that this reasoning is based on both misunderstanding of those laws and a simple refusal to accept them. He demonstrates the extent to which torture is a violation of international law. Specifically, it is a crime against humanity for anyone to commit, under any circumstances. During this, he also quotes from the US Army Field Manual, according to which torture is illegal ... and ineffective.

The book ends with a summary of all the preceding sections, and then an explanation of the American justifications for ignoring international law and the legal and other flaws behind their reasoning,. He ends by pointing out that, at the end of the day, America has to operate within the world community, and no amount of power, force and arrogance will allow America simply to give orders and be obeyed. I found this book to be quite well written, easy to read, and with the legal arguments clearly laid out and easy to follow. I would recommend it as an introduction to international law, and for its non-American-centric perspective.
54 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Atlantic Charter to . . . American Exceptionalism?? Aug. 2 2005
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In 1941, prior to Pearl Harbour, the United States broke with a generation typified by "isolationism" from world affairs. Recognising the threat to world stability German and Japanese expansion posed, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt committed their nations to a novel thesis - international cooperation was the foundation for solutions to a variety of problems. The foundation, while recognising military needs, was laid to avoid war. The Atlantic Charter endeavoured to resolve problems in anticipation of conflict. Philippe Sands traces the steps through which international law was conceived and implemented for six decades. Only now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, and by the actions of two national leaders, is that cooperative foundation being seriously eroded.

This important and penetrating study, authored by a man involved in international law at many levels, outlines the path taken in building cooperation among nations. He demonstrates how the often halting and innovative steps have produced results. The Pinochet case, involving Britain, Spain and Chile, show how effective and precedent-setting some of these actions have been. Although there are pre-WWII occurrences of international cooperation resolving individual issues, the grander themes of human rights, environmental concerns and economic liberalisation have come about in the years after the Atlantic Charter. Advances such as the Law of the Sea, the Convention Against Torture, the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol demonstrate the possibilities for extending justice and protecting the environment. One nation, the United States, has either avoided commitment to these instruments, or shelved their provisions when it deemed its own interests were paramount. To Sands, this is a disturbing and dangerous new form of isolationism. Sands sees American "exceptionalism" as leading to global instability. As he points out clearly, its devious methods and clumsy application have proven ineffective wherever it's been applied. Global resentment is clearly manifest today.

The "exceptionalist" theme was forcefully brought into view by the younger Bush's administration. Coming to office with ambitions to control governments in the oil-rich Middle East, the second Bush had targetted the Iraq regime of Saddam Hussein from the outset. A nation crippled by UN sanctions after the first "Gulf War", Iraq was vulnerable to outside pressures, Hussein's blustering notwithstanding. Sands outlines the steps taken by George Walker Bush to bring Iraq under US domination. Along the way, he recruited British Prime Minister Tony Blair to his cause. Sands is unable to define why Blair found the new arrangement desirable, but once the Labour Party leader had taken it up, he was "in for a penny, in for a pound". Wherever Bush led, Blair would follow - even using the same deceptive methods employed by the US administration. This included arranging for "intelligence" to be moulded to the committed path. "Legal" justification for the Iraq invasion was ignored in the US and ineptly contrived in Britain.

Sands notes a different application of "exceptionalism" of the United States in one area - its role in international trade. After examples set by the formation of the European Union, from small beginnings in cooperation to a fully-fledged economic bloc, the US engaged in its own form of "cooperation" with the establishment of NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Association. This was recently expanded to cover the Western Hemisphere. Based on a string of secretly formulated arrangements launched after WWII, these structures led to the US-dominated World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund. These organisations, reflecting the aim of Western domination of the developing world's economies, have guided aims in many nations with an eye to controlling resources and labour while increasing markets and eschewing environmental issues.

The author concludes with the most glaring and unacceptable aspect of the "exceptionalist" policy - torture of prisoners. Although a party to the Convention Against Torture, the US record in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Iraq shows that the Earth's most powerful nation has not only flagrantly violated its provisions, but has sought justification for its acts among its resident legal advisors. Having declared a "war on terror", the Bush administration promptly exempted people captured from the Geneva Convention. Guantanamo thus became a "legal black hole" in Sands' terms. Unable to determine to what lengths the CIA has engaged in while dealing with prisoners, the author excerpts the opinions tendered by senior officials of the Pentagon and the Attorney General's office. The use of torture was not only acceptable but the memos lined out what levels of pain might be inflicted! Note that none of these prisoners have been charged. Their only "crime" was to have been captured in a nation invaded by the United States. It is worth noting that some "prisoners" were in advanced age - hardly combatants and unlikely threats.

Sands' book is a well-written and impeccably researched charge list against the proponents of "exceptionalism" and military adventurism. As an advocate of the rule of law and with experience in international litigation, he supports cooperative effort using instruments agreed upon by many nations. International law, he argues, is the sole foundation for addressing global issues. The UN need not be the sole authority in determining which issues are addressed and how dealt with. That body, however, provides the best administrative methods and the broadest venue for dealing with them. This is a "must-read" book that provides a single, comprehensive overview of how the Bush administration has overturned a half-century of effort to improve multilateral cooperation. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How did we get here? March 5 2006
By S. Cornforth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As A lawyer I approached Phillipe Sands book with some interest. He is a renowned International Lawyer working from Chambers containing some of the leading barristers in the field. I also had misgivings about the legality of Iraq, Guantanamo and the Bush/Blair anti terror crusade without truly understanding the full legal background.

This book was both informative, disturbing and remarkably well written. Sands begins with the Atlantic Charter - the original initiative of Roosevelt and Churchill that set down the foundation for present international standards. He then traces the pioneering work of both the USA and Britain in helping to establish the institutions that monitor and protect such standards.

It is against this background that we then see the apparent disdain with which the administrations of both countires now view international law in the context of the war on terror. What is particularly disturbing is the double standard as as laws are used to enforce international laws against countries that we don't like but which do not apply to us.

In a careful, forensic analysis he completely dismantles any possible arguments that the war on Iraq was lawful or that inmates at Guatantamo are outside the basic protection of the Geneva Conventions. Of particular interest to UK readers is the alarming change of legal advice provided by the Attorney General over a period of mere weeks in 2003 in the build up to war.

He emphasises the important point that if the UK and USA ignore international standards then how much more difficult will it be to complain if other nations fail to apply such rules in their dealings with us.

Whatever one thinks of the rights and wrongs of the events of the last few years Sands leaves us in no doubt that whatever we do has to be kept within the legal framework which we ourselves established.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lawless World (October Edition) March 1 2006
By Ari Kohn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Philippe Sands' book is important, which is why I rated my review at "5," however, if I was to rate the book on the basis of my satisfaction with Amazon, better stated, "dissatisfaction with Amazon," I would rate it zero because Amazon failed to ship the most recent edition. In fact, I have purchased the book twice and both times received the October 2005 edition rather than the edition reported about by BBC World News, et al.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Analysis of Current Events vis-a-vis International Law July 22 2007
By Publius - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This in-depth analysis of today's new world order through the lens of international law provides great information and research especially on international trade--with really interesting implications related to global warming--and the Iraq war and its 'torturous' aftermath. International law is being thoroughly abused, which is concerning considering it represents a minimum standards of acceptable behavior.

Why should George Bush be impeached? Read this book. If President Bush or Vice President Cheney are complicit or participate in torture, which they are, they could be tried as a criminal under a plethora of international and domestic laws. Why is international law important? Read the global warming chapter.

This is a great book for anyone regardless of ones familiarity or professional interest in law. It would be a great addition to a university's introductory international law course.
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