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

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

Tomahawk-Missile

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.

Read more…

Time to Kill the Term ‘Officer-Involved Shooting’

(Published on the Huffington Post, May 26, 2015)

2015-05-23-1432400772-1737308-Police_shooting.jpg

If you subscribe to the Facebook page of the organization “Killed by Police“, you will receive a depressing parade of daily updates on police shootings. This litany of posts drives home the fact that the police in the U.S. kill several people a day on average. But one will also notice that the media typically reports these killings as “office-involved shootings.”

Why has the media taken to reporting the shooting and killing of people by law enforcement this way? It is dangerously misleading. Moreover, it is not just the headline that employs such ambiguous language. Typically, the report goes on to explain that the person “died” as a result of the “officer-involved shooting.” This use of such euphemistic language to describe an incident in which an organ of the state has killed a citizen is not only bizarre, it should alarm us. As Orwell so eloquently explained in such essays as “Politics and the English Language” and “Writers and Leviathan,” such deliberately misleading and opaque use of language can pose a danger to the fabric of democracy. If we do not write clearly about our political system and public institutions, we will cease to think very clearly about them too. … Read more…

The Morality of Opposing Release of GITMO Detainees

(Cross-posted on Tumblr, Jan. 15, 2015)

It was announced this week that a number of Republicans, Senator McCain prominent among them, are seeking to pass legislation to prohibit further releases. The Paris attack last week is being used as a pretext. The specter of detainees “returning to the battlefield” and engaging in new acts of terrorism is the primary argument.

It was announced just today that five more detainees were released from Guantanamo Bay, some 6 years after they were cleared for release by an inter-agency review, and as much as 13 years after they were initially detained. The majority of detainees still at Guantanamo Bay are not terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization, and of course have not been charged with any crime. But Republicans want to ensure their continued and indefinite detention. … Read more…

The Kansas Education Funding Case and Constitutional Democracy

(Co-authored with John Rury, Professor of Education at the University of Kansas – published in the Huffington Post, Jan. 16, 2015).

brown-v.-Board2The ongoing debate in Kansas over school funding is important not only for the state’s education policy, but also for how we think about our democracy. Controversy was rekindled at the end of December when a three judge panel of the District Court in Shawnee County issued a judgment declaring the legislature’s current funding formula inconsistent with the Kansas Constitution. The panel noted that the formula was both inadequate and inequitable, and that as much as $802 million in additional resources for public education could be required for the legislature to meet its constitutional obligations.

Echoing other Republican legislators and conservative pundits, Senator Steven Fitzgerald of Leavenworth was quoted in the Kansas City Star describing the ruling as “terrible,” adding “people who voted for their representatives aren’t going to be too happy with the unelected judges saying their money has to go more into the schools.” This suggests that courts should be subordinate to the majoritarian legislature, which in turn should have complete discretion over how, or even whether, to fund education for everyone.

But this argument misapprehends the nature of constitutional democracy. As conceived since the nation’s founding, constitutions are understood to provide the legal framework for democratic government, distribute political authority among its branches, enshrine rights, and lay out the fundamental values and principles by which to live for generations to come. Given this, other laws and government action must be consistent with the constitution, or be deemed invalid. … Read more…