19 April 2008

The laws of war and terrorism

By Liam Carroll

When is the use of force in international affairs legitimate, and when is it not? These are big questions in the international arena, but if you want to canvass some strong well-informed views on the topic you could do worse than travel down to the US Air Force base at Lakenheath, in Suffolk on Sunday May 18th where a peace protest is being held by the Lakenheath Action Group.

The group normally meets at this time of year to mark the anniversary of the bombing of Libya in 1986 when US jets flew from Lakenheath to strike targets in Tripoli and Benghazi. Although this was far from being the first blow in the conflict between Libya and the United States, the strike itself raised serious questions in the United Nations about the legitimacy of the airstrikes in international law.

Petitions to the Security Council to condemn the strikes were made, but no resolution or statement was issued because it was vetoed by the United States, who were supported by the UK and France. None-the-less in the view of many countries the US had violated an important principle of international law that prohibited the "threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of any State."

The United States, for their part, claimed the right of self-defence (Article 51, UN Charter) against Libyan financed terrorism that had claimed the lives of two US servicemen in the West Berlin disco bombing of a few days beforehand, and against wider state-backed terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Libya, however, claimed to oppose terrorism, but openly provided support for liberation movements. This raised yet another question; to what degree can states support the militant activities of liberation movements in other countries? If there was a genuine liberation struggle ensuing in another country, was it reasonable for any state to funnel weapons to an organisation involved in that struggle?

Fortunately, this last question was well on it's way to being answered by the World Court which was hearing a complaint from Nicaragua about support for the Contra liberation movement / terrorists by the United States. Interestingly the World Court judged that there was no support in international treaties or customary law for such activities and therefore requested that the US desist. The US did not desist from supporting the Contras (nor indeed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan), however the judgement did somewhat undermine their case against Libya for conducting similar activities.

Further complications for the case against Libya arise when one considers other liberators / terrorists they supported, like the IRA. This too was a charge that the United States were not entirely free from either; Sinn Fein were frequently feted in America, and no small measure of funding for the IRA flowed from the Irish-American business community in Boston, to the Irish militants.

The charges and counter charges illustrate well the incoherence at international level about the legitimate use of force in international affairs (and indeed the problems of defining terrorism). These issues did at least stimulate greater examination of the principles in question and the United Nations has made serious attempts to codify the legitimate and illegitimate uses of force by states and to define the use of the term 'terrorist'; recognisng that lack of clarification on these issues undermines trust in the international community.

Firstly, there is an attempt to draw up a Law of Aggression which, incredibly, despite being named as the supreme international crime by the Nuremburg Tribunal, remains unspecified in the existing body of international law. This law should enable policymakers to clearly understand the distinctions between 'self-defence' and 'aggression' and thus enable events like the US airstrike to be more clearly understood in terms of their legitimacy or otherwise.

Secondly, the Security Council has passed a number of resolutions on terrorism and has set up a counter-terrorism committee to address the ambiguities in the law and to monitor the compliance of states in implementing the important conventions on the suppression of terrorism. This process is not being conducted without some sensitivity to the issue of national resistance to foreign occupation, and represents a more serious attempt than previous efforts to recognise that people will turn to violence when denied basic rights.

These attempts should be welcomed, for the international community badly needs to resolve the gaping holes in the shared understanding of what the legitimate uses of force are, if in fact they exist at all. In the meantime, though, pressure for accountability will have to be made via the age old practice of protest, of which the Lakenheath Action Group know well. For further details contact mellcndeast@cnduk.org or Mell Harrison on 08453370282.