Friday, July 25, 2014

A New Model for International Law

Here is a great example of why I love reading journals outside my own field. I read an article from the journal Military and Strategic Affairs last night that was really insightful about international law regarding military conflicts. 

The author is a French Nigerian, so his point of view is quite mixed as a starting point.  And it seems relatively objective.

To save you the time from reading the whole thing, here are the highlights:

1.  Current international law (Geneva Convention, UN Charter, the Hague agreement) was developed in a very different world than the one we live in now. Yeah, I know you already know this.  But bear with me.

2.  These differences have led to a fundamental breakdown in the international order.  You probably knew this already too.  So here are the insights from the paper.

3.  Here are the differences that he focuses on because they seem to cause the most problems:

a) the growth of non-state actors like Al Queda makes it hard to use sanctions and other non-military methods to stop aggression.

b) the speed at which first strikes can be launched means that waiting for the “imminent danger” that international law requires is no longer feasible to maintain an adequate level of safety.  Nations find a need to use preventive self-defense at the hint of danger rather than the presence of danger.

c) cyber warfare doesn’t fit the international law model at all.  It is hard to trace the source and to know for sure whether it comes from government actors, corporate actors, individual hackers, etc.  And cyber defense is hard to stop from spreading once it gets out.

d) weapons of mass destruction make it possible for small groups with little or no footprint to do enormous damage. 

e) the growth and spread of humanitarian values adds a new threshold for intervention that has nothing to do with self-defense or international aggression.

f) the veto power of the permanent members of the UN Security Council has made that body pretty impotent.

g) the politics of the UN General Assembly makes that body pretty useless.

h) When we have evidence that a nation is breaking international law, there are often confidential sources that prevent the evidence from being disclosed.  Even in private, we can’t trust our fellow ambassadors to maintain secrecy.

Conclusion (and Warning):  Because of these breakdowns, nations increasingly find a need to pursue humanitarian and strategic goals outside of international law.  The US did this in Kosovo when we couldn’t get around a Russian veto in the Security Council so we went through NATO instead.  Iraq was even more vague - a “coalition of the willing.” 

And as nations get accustomed to ignoring international law, this becomes the norm rather that an exception.  It gives sanction for other nations to violate international law at will and we lose the moral and legal authority to protest.  You can see this not just with rogue states like North Korea, but also with China in the South China Sea, Russia in Ukraine, and on and on.

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