Michael Byers

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Unfrozen Sea: The Arctic Grail

Michael Byers, 22 March 2007

‘Where has all the ice gone?’ Joe Immaroitok asked. It was 24 October last year, and he was staring at Foxe Basin. A shallow expanse of ocean the size of England, the basin usually freezes over by early October, enabling the Inuit to travel across to Baffin Island to hunt caribou. This winter, the local council in Igloolik was considering chartering a plane to take the hunters...

War Crimes: the limits of self-defence

Michael Byers, 17 August 2006

‘I entirely understand the desire, and indeed need, for Israel to defend itself properly,’ Tony Blair said on 14 July. ‘As a sovereign nation, Israel has every right to defend itself,’ George W. Bush said on 16 July. By the time these statements were made, the IDF had bombed Beirut’s international airport, destroyed roads, bridges, power stations and petrol...

The most important upcoming decision on Britain’s future might be made three days before the general election, when representatives from 188 countries gather in Manhattan to consider the future of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT codified a bargain between the five states which then possessed nuclear weapons – Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union and the...

On Thinning Ice: When the Ice Melts

Michael Byers, 6 January 2005

“It’s difficult to overstate the perilousness of the situation. Climate change, instead of occurring slowly over millennia, will soon outpace the ability of many species to adapt and evolve, and not just in the Arctic. An article a year ago in Nature estimated that between 15 and 37 per cent of terrestrial species – that is, more than a million discrete forms of life – will be extinct by 2050. In any case, climate change is already disrupting the lives of millions of human beings. According to James Morris, the executive director of the World Food Programme, the number of people suffering food crises as a result of natural disasters has tripled in the last thirty years. Such effects are usually attributed to a combination of overpopulation, widespread deforestation and degrading soils, but weather events brought about by climate change can provoke and exacerbate humanitarian crises.”

The CIA could not break the former Iraqi president. After nearly seven months of interrogation and solitary confinement, a fit and imperious looking Saddam Hussein surveyed the US-financed Iraqi special tribunal, smiled and then pronounced: ‘This is theatre. Bush is the real criminal.’

Dishevelled, confused and compliant when captured, Saddam must have seemed the perfect puppet...

‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.’ According to Richard Clarke, that was George W. Bush’s response when he was told that international law did not permit the retributive use of military force after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.* In fact, there was no legal impediment to the intervention in Afghanistan. A...

‘He is a torturer, a murderer, and they had rape rooms, and this is a disgusting tyrant who deserves justice, the ultimate justice.’ With those words, spoken during a television interview on 16 December, the President of the United States tried, convicted and sentenced the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Ostensibly, a proper trial will take place in an Iraqi court...

When civilians are present, international humanitarian law requires belligerents to use weapons that can distinguish between civilians and combatants; they should therefore use the most accurate weapons available to them. In yet another instance of political and financial cost-benefit analyses intruding into international humanitarian law, the US argues that this imposes an unfair burden on it, given the substantial costs involved in producing smart bombs.

Jumping the Gun: Against Pre-Emption

Michael Byers, 25 July 2002

Only those who have no reason to fear military force can contemplate a world without the combined protections of the UN Charter and the customary law of the Caroline case. The President feels able to claim a broad right of pre-emptive action because other states do not currently have the capacity to retaliate. What Bush fails to realise is that his actions will encourage other states to acquire the very weapons that he purports to abhor.

Sixty years ago, German soldiers shaved off the beards of Orthodox Jews. Now American soldiers are doing the same to Islamic fundamentalists captured in Afghanistan, before flying them to a detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Other aspects of the US response are similarly troubling. Hundreds of Afghan civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of careless targeting. Unexploded...

Canadians make much of something Pierre Trudeau said in a speech to the Washington Press Club in 1969: ‘Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.’ Canada shares a continental market, the world’s longest undefended border, a language and increasingly a...

The family feud is rarely mentioned as a factor in contemporary politics, perhaps because its tribal character does not fit well into the ‘rational actor’ model favoured by political scientists and pundits. Yet the American political system, in particular, operates on quasi-tribal lines, to the point where ideological affiliations play an overt role in judicial appointments....

Back to the Cold War? Missile Treaties

Michael Byers, 22 June 2000

In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, a crazed American general launches an unauthorised nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. The film disturbed audiences in 1963 with its portrayal of how close the world actually was to Armageddon as a result of the hair-trigger procedures necessary to provide deterrence through ‘mutually assured destruction’. Nearly forty years later, a threat of perhaps even greater magnitude has materialised in Washington. In January 1999 Congress adopted an Act announcing ‘the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack’. When President Clinton signed the law in July 1999, he stated: ‘Next year, we will, for the first time, determine whether to deploy a limited National Missile Defense.’ That decision is fast approaching.‘

Woken up in Seattle: WTO woes

Michael Byers, 6 January 2000

The image of tens of thousands of protesters besieging the World Trade Organisation summit in early December was startling, in part because of the incongruity of the location: Seattle, the most relaxed of American cities. The true significance of the event lies elsewhere, however, in the changing political structures of international affairs. The ‘Battle of Seattle’ was the latest manifestation of the enormous shift in international politics caused by the end of the Cold War, the predominance of the United States, the globalisation of technology and business, and the rise of an ‘international civil society’.‘

Has US power destroyed the UN? International Relations

Simon Chesterman and Michael Byers, 29 April 1999

Nato’s unilateral intervention in the Balkans has frightened Russia, isolated China, and done little to help the million or so Kosovars in whose name Serbia is being bombed. Its principal achievements may be to ensure the death of the ‘new world order’ famously heralded by George Bush after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, and to destroy an institution that has helped to prevent international wars for over half a century.‘

The Arrest of Augustuo Pinochet in London last October, at the request of a Spanish magistrate, marked the beginning of a saga that has already had a significant effect on international law and the British Constitution. At the same time it has exposed a profound uncertainty in the British Government’s commitment to ethics, human rights and international law in the making of foreign policy.

Reasons to Comply: international law

Philippe Sands, 20 July 2006

Not since World War Two has the nature and adequacy of international law provoked such a debate, both in Britain and abroad. A great number of international agreements have been adopted over the...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences