On Iranian Gunboats: Beware Conflating American and Mainstream Views of the Law

(Published in Just Security, Jun. 2, 2020)

In a recent essay in Just Security entitled “Iranian Gunboat Harassment and the Rules of Engagement,” Michael Schmitt and Durward Johnson explore important questions raised by President Trump’s recent instruction to destroy any Iranian gunboats that harass U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. It is a thorough and careful analysis, and I agree with its conclusions – namely, that the harassing actions in question did not rise to the level of an imminent or actual armed attack on U.S. vessels, and thus could not justify a use of force in response, and that the president’s statements could in turn constitute an unlawful threat to use force in violation of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter. But the essay also raises some interesting and debatable questions that invite further discussion, and it makes assertions about the state of particular principles of international law that require some push-back. Let us begin with the latter.

The State of the Law: The Law of State Responsibility

The authors identify their purpose as assessing whether U.S. warships have a right under the body of international law that governs the resort to force by states (jus ad bellum), to use force in self-defense against Iranian gunboats engaged in harassment operations. At the very outset, in laying the foundation for the jus ad bellum analysis, the authors state that “as a matter of law, self-defense is a ‘circumstance precluding wrongfulness’ of a state’s use of force that would otherwise violate the prohibition found in Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter…”

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Why Canada Should Not Support an Israeli Attack on Iran

(Published in the Huffington Post (Canada), March 2, 2012)

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The Canadian newspapers reported this week that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be seeking the support of the Canadian government for a possible military attack on Iran. There is increasing speculation that Israel will launch military strikes before summer against the nuclear enrichment facilities within Iran, in an attempt to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Harper has given Netanyahu hope that Canada might back such a move. But the strikes would violate international law, and Canadian support for them would utterly betray the values that Canada has long championed.

First, let us examine the legality. The international law regime under the United Nations system prohibits all use of armed force, except in self-defence in the event of an armed attack, or for collective security purposes as authorized by the U.N. Security Council. The Israelis are trying to characterize the proposed military strikes as acts of self-defence to prevent an existential threat from materializing. Such strikes would not, however, satisfy the test for self-defence.

While there is some agreement in international law that states can use force to defend against an imminent armed attack, rather than being required to wait for the first blow to actually fall, the test for imminence is strict. Such “anticipatory self-defense” is permitted only when the “necessity of self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation” (a formulation that arose from an incident between Britain and the U.S. in 19th-century Canada, as it happens). In contrast, there has been widespread rejection of the concept of “preventative self-defense” — that is, the use of force to prevent the development of a more distant and speculative future threat.

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