Why It Doesn’t Seem to Matter that the Syria Strikes Violated International Law

by Julian Ku

Over at Vox, I have published an essay fleshing out the thoughts I first published here on the legality of the recent U.S. cruise missile attacks on Syria and the international reaction to it.

President Donald Trump’s surprising decision to launch a cruise missile strike on Syria was sharply criticized by Russia as a “flagrant violation of international law.” While it might be tempting to dismiss this claim as mere Putinesque propaganda, on this question at least, Russia is almost certainly correct. In the view of most international lawyers, the US strike on Syria is a crystal-clear violation of the UN Charter. So why doesn’t anybody, except Russia and some international lawyers, seem to care?

The uncomfortable answer seems to be that, at least with respect to this question — can a state use military force against a regime that uses banned weaponry against citizens? — international law simply doesn’t matter very much. And this suits the United States and the Trump administration just fine.

Please read the whole thing. I am especially pleased with this line, drafted with the assistance of one of the very smart editors they have over there:

So the UN will not become an irrelevant bystander, but neither will it operate as the final authority on the US decision to use force. This may not be ideal, but one important lesson of the reaction to the Syria strikes is that we should all start getting used to this reduced role for the UN, and stop the unrealistic fetishization of Article 2(4).


5 Responses

  1. Julian, it’s an accomplished essay, and I’m glad to see the argument fleshed out. But one of the lines that struck me most was this one: “The Trump administration’s actions — and, notably, its failure to issue any legal justification for its use of force — suggests it does not think Article 2(4) is significant or important.”

    My intuition was the opposite. Assume, with the argument of your piece, that it’s a hard or unconventional argument to make. Refraining from making such an argument is consistent with caring about being challenged or setting a bad precedent —
    believing, in other words, that Article 2(4) is potentially significant or important either for the United States (which does not want to precipitate an argument it fears it may lose) or as a restraint on others (which the United States does not want to disable by making claims that erode it). If the United States didn’t think it was significant, why not score quick points with UN opponents by acting in open defiance — or alternatively, simply offer a flimsy placeholder of a justification, preferring to smooth over this situation without regard to future controversies?

    At a minimum, it’s hard to see how the discussion to this point tips the USG hand one way or the other.

  2. Since the US did not use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Syria, it appears that you thing that protecting civilians from chemical weapons is “inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. How comes?

  3. think and not thing, of course.

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  2. […] lawyers in an effort to map their legal understanding of the strikes. So did Opinio Juris (Heller, Ku, Ohlin, Swaine, and Simons), Lawfare (Wuerth, Reeves, Deeks, Adams, and Bellinger) EJIL: Talk, […]