International Law and U.S. Military Strikes on Syria

(Published in the Huffington Post, Aug. 31, 2013).

Cruise missile launchThere has been insufficient analysis, by both policy makers and the media, of the legality of the looming use of military force against Syria. As usual, the law seems to be beside the point. But this not only ignores a key factor, but is rather paradoxical given that one of the primary justifications for the strikes is that they are to punish the Syrian government for its violations of international law. Legality should be an important factor in the decision-making process, because if the use of force is itself not lawful, then it represents nothing more than vigilante justice, likely doing far more harm than good to the international legal order.

There is little doubt that the Syrian regime has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own people over the last two years. If it is proven that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the attack last week, that would constitute a separate and grave violation of international law. All of this screams out for a response by the international community.

The reality, however, is that these crimes do not justify a unilateral use of force, and the contemplated American military strikes would not be lawful. Indeed, the Obama administration, while tossing out platitudes about complying with international norms, has not even tried to make the legal case justifying the use of force. … Read more…

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. … Read more…

Debate Afghan War Goals, Then Select Strategy

(Written with Adnan Zulfiqar, and initially published in The Japan Times, Nov. 7, 2009)

The current debate in the United States over the war effort in Afghanistan contains no shortage of opinions on the best strategy for defeating the Taliban, but far too little discussion regarding the actual objectives of the war. The famous Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote about war that “the political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation of their purpose.” But in the current debate on Afghanistan we risk doing just that — arguing about strategy without a clear understanding of our goals.

So what are the objectives in Afghanistan? What is the purpose for which we are fighting this war? The problem is that they have shifted over time. At the outset, the coalition invasion of Afghanistan was an act of collective self-defense in response to the 9/11 attacks. The objective was to prevent further attack by disrupting and destroying al-Qaida forces operating out of Afghanistan, and overthrowing the Taliban regime that supported them. … Read more…