The Outlaw World

Lawless World: The Whistle-Blowing Account of How Our Leaders Are Taking the Law into Their Own Hands

by Philippe Sands
Penguin, updated edition, 404 pp., £8.99 (paper; to be published in the US in September)
George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine


Philippe Sands is a practicing international lawyer and professor in London. Having been involved in many cases before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he took part in the effort to deny Augusto Pinochet immunity in the UK and has represented the British detainees at Guantánamo.

Along with the other books under review, Sands’s Lawless World provides a disturbing picture of the state of international law and the part, at times visionary, at other times destructive, that the US had in its development. Sands indicts the United States, with Tony Blair’s complicity,1 for abandoning its commitment to the post–World War II legal and institutional arrangements that both countries, more than anyone else, had put in place. “I am not starry-eyed about international law,” Sands writes. “I recognize that it has frequently failed millions around the world and will continue to do so. But do recent events justify a wholesale change of approach?”

Before World War II, governments could act more or less as they wished in international affairs, provided they had the power to do so. This situation began to change radically when Roosevelt and Churchill proclaimed the Atlantic Charter on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland on August 14, 1941, at a time when Nazi Germany appeared to be decisively winning the European war. This first sketch of the UN Charter and the international system that was to regulate the postwar world was based on three simple but revolutionary principles. First, states would recognize the obligation to refrain from the use of force in their international relations, and would resort to force only in self-defense or when authorized to do so by the international community—later to be represented by the UN Security Council. Second, they would maintain and respect the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of all members of the human family. Third, they would promote economic liberalization and progress through free trade and other means.

The Atlantic Charter marked the beginning of the long process that led to the establishment of the UN, the various UN specialized agencies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which after forty-five years became the World Trade Organization), and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in Sands’s words “arguably the single most important international instrument ever negotiated”), as well as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and 1977.

Further steps toward establishing an international institutional and legal order continued with the 1957 International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which has now become an important monitoring and inspection agency; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other arms control conventions; environmental law and institutions; and now the International Criminal Court, and the beginning of a system of legal obligations for states related to the prevention and suppression of international terrorism.2

Throughout Lawless World Sands’s main preoccupation is the damage…

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