On Syria and the Use of ForcePosted: September 2, 2013
The international legal blogosphere is alight with writing about the potential use of force by the U.S., and possibly France, against Syria, in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, killing more than 1400 civilians.
I have been extremely pleased to have David Fidler’s and Liron Libman’s excellent piecces on this topic here on ACL. I’m particularly pleased because I think that both of them have, in expert fashion, zeroed in on the most persuasive identification of the law applicable to this issue. I think they have both correctly identified that, notwithstanding the UK government’s formal arguments regarding humanitarian intervention, this potential use of force would not be best understood as a humanitarian intervention, but rather as a direct response to Syria’s violation of international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. The purpose of this use of force, if rendered honestly - and not intentionally obscured by the typical resort to some species of self defense claim – would be to respond forcefully to this violation of the laws and norms governing behavior of states during armed conflict, and send a message of unacceptablility in order to deter similar future actions. And as Fidler and Libman urge, I think we in the international legal community need to deal with it on this basis, and not get off track into other veins of argumentation.
I read this morning a very good post on EJIL:Talk by Shane Darcy which made this same point, and I would recommend his piece to you as a very good review of the law of armed and belligerent reprisals. I think his post is a nice complement to what David and Liron have been writing here. Darcy does conclude that armed reprisals likely are unlawful under current international law, and I don’t take issue with his assessment. But I think that the kind of thought experiments somewhere at the intersection of the lex lata and the lex ferenda, of the type engaged in here by Fidler and Libman, are important.
As I said before, I have long been concerned that the absolutist interpretive approach to Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which essentially says that, absent a compelling case for unilateral self-defense, international law never allows any international uses of force not approved by the Security Council, makes international law and international lawyers seem seriously and dangerously removed from the reality of international relations, and the need at times to use force in international relations for justified causes. And that, to the extent international law is seen to be simply impractical in the area of international uses of force, it is likely to be ignored, to the harm of international law’s credibility in this and potentially other areas as well.
I wonder if we can understand what the drafters of the UN Charter did in structuring the UN Charter system, in light of when they did it – i.e. after the experience of two horrific world wars. Its easy to see how, at that moment in 1945, there was an understandable eagerness to forbid anything that might even possibly lead to such a catastrophy of full-on great power warfare ever happening again. But I wonder if, with the passage of almost 70 years, the attending changes in international mores, and political and technological circumstances, we can with credibility say that that regime, which made emotive and intellectual sense to the drafters of the Charter, should still govern international relations today? Again, I have made these arguments more fully elsewhere.
I think that the arguments of theory and practicality, and particularly those of the slippery slope, made against the dilution of the bright line rule in Article 2(4), and the recognition, for example, of discrete rules allowing for humanitarian intervention, armed reprisals, counterproliferation-oriented preemptive self-defense, are well made and are persuasive. For example, if we were genuinely to pursue the legitimation of a rule permitting armed reprisals, could not that same argument be used by Israel’s neighbors to justify attacks on Israel in response to alleged violations of international humanitarian law committed by Israel in Gaza and the West Bank? Or for that matter by any number of states to justify attacks on US targets in response to alleged violations of international humanitarian law committed at Guantanamo Bay or by US drone strikes? You can imagine how this list could go on and on, potentialy eroding any clear prohibition on international uses of force.
Personally, I would say that I am dissatisfied with the absolutist approach to Article 2(4), and am open to and encouraging of the kind of thought experiments in which David and Liron have been engaged here. I think that the challenge of restructuring international law to allow for lawful uses of force in “just” situations - like humanitarian interventions, pre-emptive counterproliferation strikes, and reprisals against violations of international humanitarian law - and yet disallow uses of force in “unjust” situations (e.g. Iraq 2003, Iran 2013), is the holy grail of modern international legal scholarship and international lawmaking. I don’t think we’ve come close to cracking it yet.