Are the United States and Israel violating International Law despite their disagreements?

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel deliver statements to the press prior to their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, March 5, 2012. (Lawrence Jackson/ White House)

The war drums are beating louder and the media is caught up in the Obama v. Israel frenzy on what course of action to take with Iran. However, no one seems to be paying any attention to the legality of any possible U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran, or even the fact that the threat of force against any state is a violation of in.

“Does this matter at all? Should we even pretend to care in any way what the U.N. Charter prohibits and whether the U.S. Government’s threats to attack Iran directly violate its core provisions?”, asked Glen Greenwald in his post on Salon this weekend.

Greenwald was referring specifically to comments made by President Obama in a recent interview with Jeffery Goldberg. When asked by Goldberg what “all options on the table” mean, the President responded, “It means a political component that involves isolating Iran; it means an economic component that involves unprecedented and crippling sanctions; it means a diplomatic component in which we have been able to strengthen the coalition that presents Iran with various options through the P-5 plus 1 and ensures that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is robust in evaluating Iran’s military program; and it includes a military component.”

While there is little indication that Iran is using its nuclear program for making weapons, and the United States and Israel disagree on where the “red line” is set for military action, Obama and Israel’s threat of military action against Iran is clearly in violation of international law as Greenwald points out. Article 2, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”.

The United States has a record of violating international law without any consequences. In the 1986 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) case against United States concerning military and paramilitary action against Nicaragua, the Court expressed that the threat or use of force against another state was unlawful not only under the UN Charter, but also illegal under customary international law. In order to confirm the prohibition of force as an obligation of states, the ICJ referred to various other resolutions and conventions such as General Assembly resolution 2625 (XX) entitled “Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among states in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”, The Sixth International Conference of American States condemning aggression (1928), and the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States (1933).

The Court pointed out that the exception to the prohibition of use of force exists only if a state is acting in individual or collective self-defense in the event of an armed attack. Therefore, preemptive strikes do not do not qualify as acts of self-defense.

Interestingly enough the mainstream media seems to have a poor memory and a more recent example of unlawful military action by the United States directed at another country is the Iraq war. In 2004, Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General explicitly declared that the 2003 U.S. led attack on Iraq “was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”

So to answer Greenwald, it apparently does not matter that the United States continues to violate international law and the Charter of the United Nations. Even the heavy sanctions that are slowly crippling the Iranian economy are more than just bad policy choices, they disempower the Iranian people a lot more than hurting the Iranian regime.

[Random side note: Iran was an indirect party to the U.S. covert operations in Nicaragua famously knows as the Iran-Contra affair. Senior U.S. government officials facilitated arms sales to Iran despite a U.S. arms embargo against Ayatollah Khomeni’s regime in order to fund armed rebels in Nicaragua to overthrow the Leftist Sandinista government. According to Andrew Feinstein, the Iran-Contras scandal which also involved Saudi Arabia and Israel is one of the most outrageous examples of illegal arms trade in pursuit of political objectives and profit. It also highlights how criminal activities remain above all law including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).] 

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