Issue 20: The evolution in the legitimacy of the use of force according to international law

The world’s reluctance to act in the face of continuing military aggression in Kosovo prompts a consideration of the evolution in the legitimacy of the use of force.

Analysis: The Western liberal ethic – or Judeo-Christian value system – teaches us to abhor violence. Consequently, many of us recoil when confronted with daily news from places like Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Indonesia, Kosovo, and Algeria.

This value system should not be confused with pacifism. Notions of just war have existed for some time, and the legitimacy of defensive wars are everywhere recognized. Even the institutions we have created to keep the peace allow for the use of force in certain circumstances. The United Nations itself was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” and in pursuit of this goal the Security Council “may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to restore international peace and security.” (Article 42)

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he triggered the first major post-Cold War security crisis. Saddam’s actions were clearly in violation of international law prohibiting wars of aggression. The nature of the world’s response would set the precedent for international action for the foreseeable future.

George Bush’s decision to liberate Kuwait in line with Security Council authorization probably helped to secure the legitimacy of Operation Desert Storm. Bush’s tactics prevented a potentially devastating rift between Arab and non-Arab nations.

Using force only when sanctioned by the international system – as represented by the Security Council – would be ideal, if adhered to by all. Sadly, aggressors are largely impervious to the force of world opinion. Often, even economic sanctions fail to alter dictators’ behavior, as the brunt of the pain is transferred to domestic populations for whom the aggressor shows little respect.

What’s more, the gradual delegitimation of the use of force in the absence of Security Council approval, a paradigm shift that started with Desert Storm, now hampers efforts to resolve humanitarian tragedies. No side in Kosovo has completely clean hands. But the inability of Europeans or NATO to stop Milosevic shows how one ruthless individual can use the Western liberal ethic to stymie efforts to stop him.

The twentieth century has seen too much bloodshed. Perhaps an evolving reluctance to resort to force is a positive harbinger for the next millennium. But if that millennium includes the likes of Milosevic, or the genocidal elements of Rwanda, or so many others, then perennial recourse to the Security Council by those whose duty it is to stand against humanitarian disasters will only prolong the agony suffered by so many.


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