International law and policy expert
On April 6, without consulting the United States Congress or the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), President Donald Trump instructed the U.S. military to launch cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the Assad regime’s purported chemical attack on civilians less than 72 hours earlier.
Trump’s decision caught the world by surprise — this was the first time the U.S. intentionally used direct military force against Syria since the start of the civil war six years ago. A number of Western leaders, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates welcomed the strikes. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau immediately pledged Canada’s “full support” for Trump’s actions.
We shouldn’t be so sanguine: America’s actions, though professedly humanitarian, were taken with disdain for international law and have set us on a potentially dangerous path.
Two months into the Trump presidency, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served in the George W. Bush administration, warned that “we are witnessing the beginnings of the greatest presidential onslaught on international law and international institutions in American history.”
Last Thursday night’s airstrikes on Syria are the latest evidence yet of that trend and are a direct breach of the UN Charter (and perhaps U.S. constitutional law).
International law prohibits the use of force against a sovereign state, except in two exceptional situations: self-defence in case of an armed attack, and collective action authorized by the UNSC under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in support of “international peace and security.”
Neither applies here. There was no attack on the U.S. (contrast this with Washington’s intervention in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which Bush argued was justified under international law in response to the Taliban regime’s harbouring of and support for al-Qaeda). And there was no UNSC resolution (contrast this with U.S. operations against Iraq in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, or the multinational intervention in Libya in 2011, intended to prevent mass atrocities).
Could the U.S. have made a legal case for collective action under Chapter VII before executing last week’s strikes? Absolutely: the threat or use of chemical weapons against civilians, such as the abhorrent attack on Syrian civilians on April 4, is an international crime and a threat to international peace and security, which, if proven, could justify coercive measures, including military force (as a last resort). This is the very logic behind the “Responsibility to Protect,” a concept which contemplates international intervention to protect civilians from mass atrocities.
But Trump did not bother seeking UN authorization. He may have assumed that Russia and China would veto a UNSC resolution authorizing the strikes, even if the evidence of the Syrian government’s culpability was overwhelming. The U.S., however, did not even attempt to present that evidence or wait for the results of an independent investigation into the attacks, which the UN Secretary-General said on Wednesday would be needed “to remove all doubts.” Instead, it sidestepped the UN process entirely, citing America’s “vital, national security interest” in stopping the use of chemical weapons and terrorism. Trump today makes George W. Bush look like a true multilateralist by comparison.
So why has the international response generally ranged from muted to supportive? After six years of untold horrors in Syria, many leaders may be happy to see Trump abandon former President Barack Obama’s non-interventionist rulebook, flex America’s military muscle in the Middle East, and show Damascus, Tehran, Pyongyang and others that some “red lines” are crossed at their own peril now that a new sheriff is in town.
That is shortsighted thinking. What we may be seeing over the last few days is the emergence of a new ‘Trump Doctrine’ of unilateral military intervention based on the principle of “SHOOT FIRST AND TALK LATER!,” as Trump tweeted in 2013, which may be driven more by short-term domestic policy and geopolitical posturing (Trump ordered the attacks just before his state dinner with China’s President Xi Jinping) than humanitarian considerations. That should give us pause.
Even if we agree with Trump’s assessment in this particular case, would we welcome unilateral U.S. strikes elsewhere? Would we support China’s or Iran’s “limited” and “focused” (in Trudeau’s words) bombing of sovereign countries wherever they deem this to be in their “vital, national security interest”? Would we take them on their word without any independent investigation or authorization?
The basic point is this: we cannot pick and choose when, and for whom, international law applies. The rules work only so long as we respect them. Canada has a vital interest in preserving the stability of that system. From trade and investment to the environment, international rules and institutions have made for a more orderly, prosperous and secure world for Canadians.
Today, we should be working harder than ever to prevent the U.S. onslaught on international law and persuade our trigger-happy neighbour to work through international institutions. Rather than pledging our “full” support for the U.S. airstrikes, we should call them what they are — illegal (though perhaps warranted) — and urge the Trump administration, like Sweden and Indonesia have done, to refrain from going-it-alone. Trump has complained that he “inherited a mess” from Obama, but there will be no fixing the “mess” that the emergent Trump Doctrine could leave in its wake.