Canada’s Support of U.S. Strikes on Syria Harms International Law

(Published in the HuffPost, May 1, 2017.)

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In the immediate aftermath of the American missile strike against Syria, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada “fully supports” the U.S. in its “limited and focused action to degrade” the Syrian government’s chemical weapons capability. Many Canadians appear to think that this was the right call, given the heinous nature of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. But the U.S. missile strikes violated international law, and weakened the international rule of law. Canada’s swift and strong support for those unlawful acts will in turn do further harm to the international law system. That is not at all consistent with Canada’s traditional support for international law. It was not necessary, and the Canadian government should re-consider such support for future American unilateral attacks.

Let us begin with the question of legality. Article 2(4) of The United Nations Charter and customary international law provide for a strict prohibition against the use of force against other states. There are only two exceptions to that prohibition, permitting states to use force either in individual or collective self-defense (Article 51), or when authorized to do so by the UN Security Council for purposes of maintaining or restoring international peace and security (Articles 39 and 42).

There is an amazingly strong consensus among international law scholars, even within the United States, that the U.S. missile strikes constituted a clear violation of the prohibition against the use of force. These views have been articulated in such renowned national security and international law blog sites as Lawfare, Just Security, EJILTalk!, and Opinio Juris. Such a consensus is remarkable given how divided opinion has been on the invasion of Iraq, drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, or even the American strikes within Syria against ISIS. There is so little disagreement on these recent strikes, however, because there is virtually no plausible argument that they satisfy either of the established exceptions.

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Speaking with Yanai in The Hague

Speaking in February on a panel with Judge Shunji Yanai, on the constitutional and international law issues arising from the Japanese government’s “reinterpretation” of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. Shunji Yanai, who is a judge on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, was the chairman of the Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction for the Legal Basis of Security, which made recommendations to the Japanese government on how and why to “reinterpret” Article 9. The one-day conference was held at the Asser Institute in The Hague, with Judge Hisashi Owada of the International Court of Justice giving the keynote address.

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Questioning U.S. Support for Japan’s National Security Moves

(Published in JURIST – Forum, Sept. 2, 2015)

AbeKerry-smallOn August 30, tens of thousands of Japanese citizens demonstrated outside of the Diet (parliament), and in other cities across Japan, protesting against draft national security legislation that would expand the permissible operations of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The bills are the culmination of an effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to expand Japan’s role in international collective security efforts. To do so, however, the government has sought to “reinterpret” Japan’s constitutional limits on the use of military force, in a manner that circumvents the formal constitutional amendment process, and thereby undermines the rule of law and constitutionalism in Japan.

It is this process as much as the substance of the bills that has provoked the protests and triggered a constitutional crisis in Japan. Yet these developments have been largely welcomed in US policy circles. The objectives may be in America’s short-term interest, but a deeper understanding of the issues and a longer-term perspective would caution against US endorsement of this illegitimate process.

Constitutional Background

To understand the issues one has to begin with the constitutional limits. Article 9 of the constitutionrenounces war as a sovereign right of the nation, and the threat or use of force for the settlement of international disputes (Art. 9(1)). It also prohibits the maintenance of armed forces or other war potential (Art. 9(2)). These provisions have been consistently interpreted by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB) (which is loosely analogous to the US Office of Legal Counsel) and successive governments since the early 1950s, as meaning that Japan was entitled to use force for individual self-defense in the event of an armed attack on Japan; and that Japan was thus entitled to maintain a minimum level of armed forces necessary for such defense. This understanding was also implicitly confirmed by the Supreme Court in the Sunagawa decision, the only decision it has rendered on the issue. But the CLB has also clearly maintained that Art. 9(1) means that Japan is prohibited from any participation in collective self-defense as authorized by Article 51 of the UN Charter, or other collective security operations as authorized by the UN Security Council under Articles 39 and 42 of the UN Charter. … Read more…

Interview in AERA Magazine on Art. 9 and Revisionist History

This interview, titled (roughly) “Speak Out Against the ‘It Can’t Be Helped’ Way of Thinking”, was published in the August 10, 2015 issue of AERA, Japan’s highbrow weekly newsmagazine. It was a special issue devoted to the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II. It unfortunately attributes some of the comments I made in relation to Article 9 of the Constitution, and how the public should respond to efforts of the current government to reinterpret that provision, to my views on Prime Minister Abe’s tendencies towards revisionist history.

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