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