It isn't easy to imagine anyone commanding a large and admiring audience for a lecture on some rather recondite aspects of the interpretation of international law. At the SOAS Brunei Gallery earlier this evening however (10th March), one elderly Swedish professor pulled it off. Of course he is more than an academic: Hans Blix is also the chair of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (WMDC) which has just produced its report Weapons of Terror, making 60 recommendations for ending the threat of nuclear annihilation that hangs over us all. But more than that, as chair of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) from March 2000 to June 2003, he led the UN inspection regime in Iraq which steadfastly reported the truth, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country. Compare the collapse of our own security services into endorsement of the "dodgy dossier".
Blix's topic tonight was rather different, however. At its core was a discussion of two apparently discrete but in practice related issues: the development in international law of the responsibility to protect; and the claim to exercise a right to anticipatory self-defence. The first is one which commands immediate sympathy: despite the commitment in the UN Charter to sovereignty of states and non-intervention in internal affairs, who can quarrel with the idea that where a population is being brutalized within national boundaries the international community should do something? But however resonant the cry of "no more Rwandas", the fact is that many in the developing world see it as a formula for intervention by powerful nations with agendas of their own.
If intervention is to be acceptable it must be even-handed and legitimate, which in turn means overcoming the democratic deficit in UN institutions themselves - especially the security council.
The second major theme was the stark contrast between the principles of international law and the doctrine of anticipatory self defence propounded in the US National Security Strategy in the aftermath of 11th September 2001. Not only did this arrogate to the US the right to engage in pre-emptive war, but to do so on the basis of a "distinctive American internationalism" and to apply it to non-state actors. This radically breached the prohibition against pre-emptive war and created criteria for military action which were open to public scrutiny only after the event, if at all. A pair of quotations made the point: "when a threat is imminent it is too late" (George Bush) and "no need to wait for the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud" (Condoleezza Rice). And though, as the WMDC report showed, the threat of nuclear proliferation was growing, there was no reason to think that "anticipatory self-defence" was the answer to it: on the contrary it required persistent multilateral action.
As with the responsibility to protect, many states, whatever they might think for example of Iranian nuclear technology, saw in this claim to anticipatory self-defence another formula for unwarranted intervention.
Perhaps for the benefit of the large phalanx of lawyers among the audience of 350, Blix spiced his remarks with a delicate dissection of our own Lord Goldsmith's legal opinions on the legitimacy of the Iraq war. Finally however he noted that far from being a failure, what happened in 2003 was a credit to the UN: the sheriff had not been allowed to shoot at will.
Following questions the lecture ended in a near ovation. This owed something to the subject matter, but more to the feeling that the speaker represented a commitment to principle for which they all too often looked in vain in government and international institutions.
The full text of the talk is available on the website (www.unawestminster.org.uk) of the Westminster UNA branch which - together with the Bar Council and Clifford Chance - organized this event, the 6th Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen International Law Lecture.