It’s been a number of months since I blogged, but I am back for the time being…
I do not wish to argue whether or not the attacks by Israel on Syria this weekend were justified, but instead point out a comment made by a White House spokesman, quoted by Reuters, that deserves more attention than it is likely to get:
The president many times has talked about his view that Israel, as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people.”
This type of statement is made just about every time Israel goes on the attack. The problem is that if international law is taken into account, then it is not a universally true statement. If “the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people,” include the threat or use of force, then no sovereign government has this right unchecked.
All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
There are two exceptions to this: 1) the UN Security Council approves the use of force and 2) in self defense against armed attack until the Security Council has time to act. The second condition is summarized in the well known Article 51 of the the UN Charter:
Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
Israel did not refer this to the UN Security Council and will certainly not refer it to the Council under an Article 51 claim, most likely because of its past violations of Security Council resolutions. So while Israel is certainly not alone in violations of international law, it certainly is in violation at present.
What is revealing is how we would react to other countries making the same statement the White House did. If Iran attacked Iraq and Russia said “Iran, as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people,” we would immediately recognize the statement as meaningless and we would apply the international norms that say a country cannot attack another one just because it claims it is in self-defense. Given current US drone attacks outside of armed conflict in Afghanistan, in addition to its vast history of wars launched in violation of international law, it is not surprising that the White House will make such a statement about an ally. International law is considered so foreign and inapplicable to us that this statement passes without comment.