Iraq was not the first illegal US-led attack on a sovereign state in recent times. The precedent was set in 1999 in Yugoslavia.

The legality of the war against Iraq remains the focus of intense debate – as is the challenge it poses to the post-second-world-war order, based on the inviolability of sovereign states. That challenge, however, is not a new one. The precursor is without doubt Nato’s 1999 attack on Yugoslavia, also carried out without UN support. Look again at how the US and its allies behaved then, and the pattern is unmistakable.

Yugoslavia was a sovereign state with internationally recognised borders; an unsolicited intervention in its internal affairs was excluded by international law. The US-led onslaught was therefore justified as a humanitarian war – a concept that most international lawyers regarded as having no legal standing (the Commons foreign affairs select committee described it as of “dubious legality”). The attack was also outside Nato’s own remit as a defensive organisation – its mission statement was later rewritten to allow for such actions.

This article is old (it was first published in 2003) but is relevant for understanding current Chinese suspicions of American hegemony.

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