Why Can't the U.S. Just Take Iraq's Oil?

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On September 7, 2016, at the “Commander-in-Chief Forum” in New York City, both candidates for President of the United States discussed foreign policy in a televised question and answer session. One candidate proposed a policy for American activity in the Middle East that raised some eyebrows. Specifically, the candidate said, “I’ve always said we shouldn’t be there [in Iraq], but if we’re going to get out, take the oil.”[1] Immediately, commentators questioned whether or not this sort of policy would be legal.[2] The policy, if adopted, would possibly violate several international agreements that the United States is a party to.

Iraq Oil
U.S. Soldiers in Iraq walk by a burning oil pipeline.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Specifically, the hostile acquisition of resources would violate international laws established in three separate documents; the Hague regulations of 1907, the 1949 Geneva Convention, and the UN Resolution of 1974. Further the International Court of Justice [ICJ] recently condemned the practice.[3]

Article 43 of the Hague Regulations of 1907 requires the occupying country to take all measures to maintain the status quo in the occupied country.[4] Specifically, the occupying country must “ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.”[5]

The 1949 Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, requires occupying countries to leave the personal resources of civilians unharmed during an occupation. [6]

Third, the U.N. Resolution of 1974 establishes that “no territorial acquisition or special advantage resulting from aggression shall be recognized as lawful.” (emphasis added).[7] Acquiring oil during the hostile occupation of a country would probably fall under the definition of aggression established under this resolution. That definition includes, “any military occupation, however temporary, resulting from invasion or attack . . . of another state or part thereof.”[8]

The ICJ recently discussed the exploitation of an occupied country’s resources in its 2005 judgment in Case Concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Uganda) [DRC v. Uganda].[9] That case concerned the Ugandan occupation of the DRC from 1996 to 2001.[10] The occupation’s stated goal was to combat insurgents who were opposed to the Ugandan government and located in the DRC. [11] During the occupation, among other atrocities, Uganda exploited many of the natural resources in the DRC, including more than nine million dollars worth of gold.[12] The ICJ ruled against Uganda in that case and ordered them to pay the DCR reparations. [13] The two countries are negotiating to determine what the final amount of reparations will be, but the DRC suggested a total of ten billion dollars.

The expression “to the victor goes the spoils” might be a catchy way to propose recovering some of the costs of war, but it’s unworkable as a policy proposal for the United States. The ICJ’s recent ruling in DRC v. Uganda shows how seriously the court takes the hostile acquisition of a country’s natural resources. Beyond the humanitarian questions involved, exploiting an occupied country’s natural resources could expose the US to violations of several international agreements and could make the country liable for reparation payments at some point in the future.


[1] Louis Jacobson, Should the U.S. Have Kept Iraq’s Oil, as Donald Trump Argues?, Politifact (Sept. 9, 2016), http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/sep/09/should-US-have-kept-Iraq-oil/[https://perma.cc/4KD4-LXXE].

[2]Id.

[3] Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Dem. Rep Congo v. Uganda), Judgment, 2005 I.C.J. 168 (Dec. 19).

[4] Convention for Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and Its Annex art. 43, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2227, T.S. 539.

[5]Id.

[6] Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War art 64, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3516, 75 U.N.T.S. 287.

[7] Definition of Aggression, G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIZ) A, U.N. Doc. A/RES/3314(XXIX) (Dec. 14, 1974)

[8]Id.

[9] Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Dem. Rep Congo v. Uganda), Judgment, 2005 I.C.J. 168 (Dec. 19).

[10]Id. at 182.

[11]Id. at 29.

[12]Id. at 250.

[13]Id. at 181.


Posted by Joseph M. Brook on Thu. October 13, 2016 11:01 AM
Categories: International Court of Justice, Iraq

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