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Friday, 9 November, 2001, 11:34 GMT
War View: Is this war lawful?
The war in Afghanistan is a response to the threat to international peace, say the US and UK. In that case they must abide by international law, says Alex Ramsbotham of the United Nations Association's conflict resolution department.

The terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September caused shock and horror around the world. There was global sympathy for America, as well as recognition of the United States' right to take action both to protect Americans and to bring those responsible to justice.

In his response to the attacks, President George Bush has regularly stressed the importance of international cooperation and international law.

On 21 October, for example, in a joint statement with President Vladimir Putin, he asserted that "the fight against terrorism requires the unity of the entire international community to counter new challenges and threats on the basis of international law and the full use of the United Nations".


An armed response requires explicit authorisation by the security council, which was not provided in either of [the September] resolutions.

The UN's role is significant because of the global legitimacy provided by working within the principles of the UN Charter, a legally-binding document signed by the 189 UN member states.

The position of the UN Security Council, in particular, is crucial. It is both the key international body in maintaining world peace and the global authority in terms of international military action.

In response to the 11 September attacks, the council passed resolutions 1368 (12 September) and 1373 (28 September), both of which explicitly recognised the "inherent right of individual or collective self-defence" on the part of member states and further defined the attacks as a "threat to international peace and security".

Authority is debateable

The fact that the council mentioned threats to international peace and security is important, as it is in response to such threats that it can authorise coercive measures.

However, an armed response requires explicit authorisation by the council, which was not provided in either of these resolutions.


There is much controversy as to whether the action represents self-defence

Resolution 1368 expressed the council's "readiness to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September".

It is debatable whether this gives the necessary authorisation for military strikes. It is significant that this phrase has not been referred to by the US or the UK to justify legally the current actions; rather, it is the right to self-defence, defined under Article 51 of the charter, that has been cited.

There remains much controversy as to whether the military action in Afghanistan does, in fact, represent self-defence or the best response.

On 7 November in The Times newspaper, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, a leading authority on international law, said: "It cannot sensibly be asserted that invading Afghanistan is necessary¿ to protect America."

Kosovo question

It is debateable whether the attacks on Afghanistan are:
1) the most effective way of apprehending prime suspects Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda members; or
2) likely to make either the US or the rest of the world safer from terrorist atrocities.

It is essential the principles of international law are adhered both when it comes to the short-term response to 11 September and the long-term fight against international terrorism.


Keeping the support of less developed countries is especially important

Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was controversial and the reverberations are still being felt on the diplomatic front.

The fact that Nato did not receive explicit authorisation from the security council has continued to worry less powerful countries. Many fear the West will act as it wishes whenever it suits and will stick to or ignore international law accordingly.

The international community's position is particularly significant when it comes to establishing a solid and enduring coalition to fight terrorism.

Keeping the support of less developed countries is especially important, when you consider that issues such as global inequality have been cited as a catalyst for inciting terrorism.

Whilst one must of course recognise the terrible pain and fear felt by Americans as a result of 11 September, it does not help anyone if the response risks exacerbating rather than improving the situation.

Ignoring international law undermines the legitimacy of the response to terrorism and further weakens condemnation of the 11 September attacks as breaches of international law.

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