Why Can We Only Break International Law in order to Torture and Kill People and not in order to Help Them?Posted: January 28, 2013
I was just coming home from driving my daughter to school, when I heard a story on NPR about how the US has been encouraging the opposition coalition in Syria politically, and in particular encouraging moderates to become involved, but that now the US is failing to make good on promises it has made to provide actual material support to the opposition, and through it to the suffering Syrian people, and in so doing is undermining those very moderate elements. The reason for this failure to follow through on promises? Well, John Bellinger came on the radio to say that international law forbids the US from becoming involved in the internal affairs of another country, and that because the US still recognizes the Assad regime as the legal government of Syria, international law forbids giving material aid – even simply humanitarian aid – to the Syrian people through the opposition.
I’m less interested in whether Bellinger’s assessment of law is correct as I am with what seems to me to be quite a sickly ironic fact of US foreign policy. We only break international law when we think we have to kill people or torture them for national security purposes. Then the cause is important enough that international law doesn’t matter. Iraq, Guantanamo, Bagram, assassinations in Iran, drones in Pakistan – the list could go on. But when we are faced with humanitarian crises when our support could help thousands to live and NOT die – Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, etc. – we stay our hand, because of conservative interpretations of the niceties of international law. Now how sickly ironic is that, particularly in light of the human rights and humanitarian principles central to so much of modern international law?
If we accept that sometimes we will have to break international law in the course of practical international relations, I would be much happier about doing so in a case like supporting the Syrian opposition and Syrian people, than I am about doing so in order to disproportionately kill civilians in our ridiculously ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.