Skip To Content

South African Judge Condemns Attack Against Iraq as Unlawful, Unjustifiable

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — At a time when most Jewish leaders in South Africa are keeping a low profile on the war in Iraq, a leading Jewish jurist has called the American-led coalition attack “unlawful under international law.”

In interviews published Sunday in two major newspapers, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Independent, Judge Richard Goldstone added that the war is also morally unjustifiable.

An internationally respected authority on human rights law, Goldstone is one of three Jewish judges serving on South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court. He is the former chief prosecutor for the United Nations international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He has also held leading positions in Jewish organizations; he is currently president of the London-based World ORT Union.

In the interviews, he said the United States is endangering the body of international humanitarian law built up since World War II.

“If the only superpower regards itself as above the law, then it has the potential of releasing everybody from the law,” he said. “If that is how the United States acts, why should other countries consider themselves bound by international law?”

The use of military force, he said, is lawful only in two cases: dire self-defense, when the threat of attack is so imminent there is no time to wait for the United Nations to act, or when it is authorized by the Security Council.

Goldstone said neither of these applies to the invasion of Iraq.

“The self-defense argument is very weak,” he said, adding that it was “quite clear that the majority of Security Council members do not authorize the use of force.”

In contrast, Goldstone said, the use of military force in Kosovo in 1999 also contravened international law, but had been justified: “I chaired an international commission on Kosovo and we came to the conclusion that although illegal, it was legitimate because of the justness and morality of protecting innocent Albanians, who were already the subject of ethnic cleansing by the Serbs.”

He added that the war on Iraq did not make President Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair war criminals “under present law.”

“The waging of unlawful war has not been defined as a war crime, but this is an area of controversy,” he said.

Goldstone asserted that the United States did not have the right to bring about regime change in another country. He said international law has been moving in the direction of recognizing intervention in extreme situations for humanitarian reasons, “but this is not the same as regime change.”

If a regime were posing a danger to world peace, “it would be for the United Nations to make that call, as they did when they authorized the U.S. attack on the Taliban” in Afghanistan, Goldstone said.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.