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Geoffrey Robertson: No real suggestions about stopping Iran

Counsel for the prosecution adjusts his horsehair wig, smoothes his silk gown, coughs, and turns to face the jury. "There is no graver threat to international peace and security than the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons", he intones. "Once it has the capacity to make ‘the bomb'—and it had come quite close by the autumn of 2012—then the centre cannot hold."

Thus begins Mullahs without Mercy, Geoffrey Robertson QC's most recent contribution to his specialist subject: regimes which permit or carry out systematic and egregious acts of violence against groups within their jurisdiction through torture, rape and executions, criminal acts which constitute widespread breaches of fundamental human rights. However, unlike the Balkans or Sierra Leone (where Robertson has sat as an appellate judge in the Special Court), the defendant in Robertson's sights is on the cusp of developing nuclear weapons.

Rather than airstrikes, Robertson hopes "lawfare" will stop Iran reaching the point of no return. His starting point is that the very production and possession of the bomb should itself be a crime against humanity. Nukes, he says, breach "the most fundamental of human rights, the entitlement of every individual not to be deprived arbitrarily of his or her life and not to be subject to the inhumane treatment and torture caused to survivors by ionising radiation." Moreover, unlike less prestigious but no less lethal biological and chemical weaponry, possession of nukes (whose lethality is "uncontainable in space or time") by one state provides "a constant stimulus" for a destablising arms race that sucks in lives and money. 

This axiomatic ban has two effects. Criminalisation of possession would propel the members of the "nuclear club" (of which Britain is a member) down the path to complete nuclear disarmament envisaged in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, adding crucial weight to the NPT's current obligation to use "good faith" in negotiating to achieve that end.

For states like Iran, whose dreams of nuclear capacity would augment their capacity to carry out crimes against humanity, criminalisation would provide the international community with the capacity to act even when the given mechanisms governing the use of force are stuck. 

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