It was a full house last night at Melbourne University to hear international law professor Philippe Sands deliver the 2005 Law School Alumni Lecture “Lawless World: International Law after 9/11 and Iraq.”

Sands has just written a book which makes a comprehensive case for the importance of international law and the illegality of many actions of the Bush administration and its allies, most obviously the Iraq war.

In the lecture, and especially in the following questions, Sands allowed himself some optimism. He argues that the norms of international law are fairly robust, and that rogue states will find it difficult to pick and choose which bits they will abide by. In the light of the Pinochet case in the House of Lords, he even suggested it was possible that some of the instigators of the Iraq war might one day be called to account – or at least that, like certain international figures today, they would be on “extradition watch,” where they would have to curtail their travels for fear of prosecution.

Unfortunately, some punishments just don’t seem to fit the crime. No doubt it’s a real handicap for Henry Kissinger not to be able to travel to France – if only because he’s missing out on lucrative book tours. Even Donald Rumsfeld, suave cosmopolitan that he is, might be concerned about a lack of options after retirement. But George W Bush? Where would he want to travel to? The man didn’t even have a passport before he ran for president.

And what about our own John Howard? Can you really see him on a world tour happily promoting his memoirs before being picked up by a zealous prosecutor in Belgium? More likely his retirement (if it ever happens) will find him in front of the TV in Hawks Nest, tuned to the cricket and far from the cares of international law and public opinion alike. There may be law in the world, but there is little justice.