Ramsey Clark: US Aggression Against Syria is Not the Right Action

Source: DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense. via Reuters

The United States aggression against the people of Syria is as much an affront to human rights and humanitarian values as it is to international law and standards of common decency.

I have visited Syria numerous times over the years, including several times during the current violence in the country. As a lawyer, I have also represented the Syrian government in the United States courts. As an American, and former Attorney General of the United States, I have many Syrian friends and great respect for the Syrian people. My heart goes out to the Syrians who were killed by this meaningless bombing of their country and to all the Syrians who were terrorized by this unwarranted act of aggression. It is especially sad that the majority of those killed have been reported to be civilians, among them four children. We killed more than a half million children in Iraq, do we not learn from our horrific mistakes.

There is no reason why we should continue to allow the tragedy that has been happening in Syria. No doubt the violence in the country is wrong, but it is the government of Syria that has the responsibility to end this violence. Our actions, instead of helping the Syrian government to end the violence, contribute to continued and heightened violence. We have long known that violence is not defused by more violence.

It is my hope that U.S. President Trump will act with more respect for the law and for human life. The illegal bombing of a foreign country in its first one hundred days in office sets a very bad precedent for a new administration. The United States should set a good example for the world by abiding by international law and by using the law to help end the violence in Syria and restore the government of Syria to control of the country. Even when peace is achieved—as it is being achieved by Syria with Russia and Iran’s help—the United States can continue to encourage social and economic development and human rights in Syria, but through cooperation, which I am sure will be much more effective. Aggression, on the other hand, usually leads to the greatest violations of human rights.

In my trips to Syria, the people of the country and its government have always shown me the utmost respect, I would hope that we would do the same for the Syrian people and their government in their own country. If we do, I am sure we will find some very good friends.


​Curtis Doebbler: The United States’ Use of Force Against Syria Violates International Law

Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Security Council reminds the Member States how the United States government lied about Iraq and may doing so again to justify bombing Syria.

Source: UN Webcast

The United States’ use of force against the sovereign state of Syria is a prima facie violation of international law. It is an act of aggression against an UN Member State in violation of the Charter of the United Nations. It therefore gives Syria the right to react in self-defense or a legal justification for the use of force. It also gives any other UN Member State the right to act in collective self-defense and to support Syrian action against the US. This is the basic understanding of the international legal consequences of the United States’ use of force against Syria.

An analysis of the US use of force must review the known facts and the applicable international law. The position of US law, while relevant to Americans, has little to do with the evaluation of international law. National law can never be a justification for a violation of international law. Similarly, national emotions, even the emotional concerns of a US President, cannot justify the actions of the US government that are inconsistent with international law.

The Facts

The United States launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al-Shayrat Airfield in Syria from a warship based in the Mediterranean Sea starting at 3:42 a.m., local Syrian time, in the early morning of Friday, 7 April 2017. Each Tomahawk cruise missile carries over 1000 pounds of conventional explosives. The United States based television channel CNN not only reported the air strikes, but also showed videos of the missiles being launched from an American warship that it claimed were the missiles used in the attack. United States President Donald Trump admitted that his government launched this armed attack against Syria and he bragged about it in a way that indicates that it may launch further attacks. He stated that the attack was based on a “vital national security interest” of the US and called on “all civilized nations to join us [the US] in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.” He went on say “[w]e ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world…[and]…[w]e pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed and we hope that as long as America stands for justice then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” Ironically, the very Syrian base that was bombed was very much engaged in action against non-State actors that the US government itself has labeled as terrorists organizations. 

  1. At approximately 6:45 a.m. Washington, D.C. time, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also acknowledged that the US had used force against Syria. He said the use of force was a retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. The same justification was given by the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who claimed the armed attack on Syria, another sovereign Member State of the UN, was justified by a chemical weapons attack that took place in Syria. She also stated that the US is “prepared to do more” to the UN Security Council. And she claimed that Russia and Iran has been complicit in the chemical weapons attack.

Syria has also publicly acknowledged that it has been attacked and that it has suffered material damage to its infrastructure and military assets as well as human casualties. Syria reported that eight civilians were killed, including four children. In addition, five Syrian soldiers were killed. At the time of the attack, Syria was engaged in an armed conflict against non-State actors who were using of force against the sovereign government of Syria. Both the government of Syria and the non-State state actors had been accused of committing violations of international law in the conduct of the armed conflict. The armed conflict also involves other States such as Iran and Russia, both of which had been asked to assist the government of Syria in restoring control over the country. 

International Law 

Even before the 7 April attack, the US and its allies from Europe and Saudi Arabia, among others, had been assisting non-State actors in their use of force against the government of Syria, including by providing soldiers who were combatants in the armed conflict. Such participation in an armed conflict by uninvited States, supporting the use of force against a sovereign Member State of the UN, is a violation of international law prohibiting interference in the domestic affairs of States. Such interference was strongly condemned by the International Court of Justice in 1986 in the Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua between Nicaragua and the United States. The Court found such action to be illegal. Thus, the US and its allies were already engaged in illegal action against Syria even before the US conducted the 7 April armed attack.

Both Syria and US are Member States of the United Nations and therefore both States are legally bound to the obligations in the Charter of the United Nations, which by virtue of its article 103 takes precedence over all other legal obligations they may have. Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter prohibits in, relevant part, the “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 only justifications for the use of force are self-defense or when the use of force has been authorized by the UN Security Council. 

Self-defense may only be used as a justification for the use of force, when a state has been subject to an armed attack. The necessity of satisfying the condition of having been subject to an armed attack was made clear by the International Court of Justice in the already-mentioned Nicaragua Case. This interpretation is also consistent with the object and purpose of the Charter of the United Nations, which is to prevent the use of force and ensure the peaceful co-existence of States. The requirement that the use of force in self-defense be proportionate is only irrelevant if the requirement of an armed attack has been satisfied. In this case, the US is not alleging that Syria attack the US or threatened to do so. In this case, there has been no authorization by the UN Security Council.

The US government has publicly claimed that its use of force against Syria is in response to Syria’s use of prohibited chemical weapons in an attack in the Idlib Province of Syria near the village of Khan Sheikhoun. Syria has denied that it used chemical weapons. The area in which the attack took place is under the control of the non-State actor, the Al-Nusra Front, which the US and the UN have labeled a terrorist organization. The US government’s claim that Syria used chemical weapons was being investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Fact Finding Mission at the time of the US attack against Syria. The OPCW Fact Finding Mission has stated that its investigation was ongoing and that it was not yet able to attribute responsibility for, or even confirm that, chemical weapons were responsible for the injuries that the US government claimed took place near the village of Khan Sheikhoun. 

The Russian government, which is closely cooperating with Syria, has stated that it does not believe that the government of Syria used chemical weapons. The government of Russia issued a statement indicating that the injuries from chemicals appear to have been sustained by individuals under the jurisdiction of the non-State actors that are using force against the government of Syria because a Syrian attack hit a depot holding chemical weapons smuggled into the country by the Al-Nusra Front. If this is correct, the non-State actors who had chemical weapons, and the States supporting them, may be responsible for the injuries caused by the release of toxic chemicals from chemical weapons. Moreover, the Russian intelligence, which has been consistently more reliable than that of the US or other Western States, has stated that less than half the 59 cruise missiles fired by the US hit the targeted airfield. This supports the Syrian government’s claim that most of the casualties were civilians.

Legally, the US government’s claim that Syria used chemical weapons is irrelevant to a consideration of the use of force and its legal justification for the use of force. Even if true, the US’s use of force is inconsistent with international law and gives rise to the State responsibility of the US for an internationally wrongful act. A retaliation by one State against another State, which is alleged to have violated international law, may not involve the use of force unless is in response to an armed attack. In this case, no armed attack took place against the US, therefore there is no justification for the use of force by the US. When there is no justification for a violation of international law then a State is responsible for the consequences of an internationally wrongful act.

The consequences of an internationally wrongful act include that a State must bring its violation of international law to an immediate end, provide assurances that it will not reoccur, and provide reparations to the injured State. It appears that the US has ended its legal use of force for the time being, but the US has not provided assurances that it will not act illegally again in the near future. In stating to the UN Security Council that the US is “prepared to do more,” Ambassador Nikki Haley, made a representation on behalf of the US that could be construed as a threat to use force against the people of Syria again in the future. This would itself be an additional violation of international law because threats to use force are also violations of international law, according to article 2(4) of the UN Charter. 

Additionally, the US government has not offered any reparations to the people and government of Syria. In this case, reparations could run into the billions of dollars given the serious nature of an illegal use of force against the people of Syria and the irreplaceable loss of life.

In addition, because the use of force is a very serious violation of international law, other States must refrain from recognizing the situation created by the illegal use of force. States that support or recognize the situation created by the illegal use of force by the US government may themselves be violating international law. In this regard, the public statements of the Turkey, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Israel should be noted. It is also relevant to note that the leaders of Bolivia, Venezuela, China, Iran, and Russia have condemned the US’s use of force as illegal.

Perhaps more importantly, the US government’s apparently illegal use of force against constitutes an armed attack against Syria that provides a justification for the use of force against the US in self-defense. Moreover, other States, if requested, may act in collective self-defense to support action taken by Syria against the US. Thus ironically, the US aggression against the people of Syria serves as a justification of the otherwise unlawful use of force against American citizens and US military assets. This escalation of the use of force and this possible spiral of violence are exactly what the Charter of the United Nations was intended to avoid. 

Russia has called for a UN Security Council meeting to consider the US use of force against Syria because it believes it violates the UN Charter. This Russian action is consistent with the UN Charter and the use of its mechanisms that are intended to prevent and address the illegal use of force. One would think that such an initiative would be welcomed by other Member States of the UN and used as an opportunity to condemn an illegal use of force. If this does not happen, then the illegal use of force by the US government may merely be another shameful event in the already checkered reputation of the UN.

In 2001, the US government attacked Afghanistan destroying the country and leaving it in shambled to this day. In 2003, the US government attacked Iraq leaving it devastated. And in 2011 the US lead its NATO allies into battle against the people and sovereign State of Libya that turned the richest country in Africa—a country with free education and health care—into a failed State whose resources are being plundered by the victors. Together a reliably estimated 3 million people died in these armed conflicts which were initiated by the illegal use of force and the meddling of foreign States in the internal affairs of the countries concerned. In these cases, nothing their leaders had done in decades before the US attacks could have matched the inhumanity left behind from the US use of force. In the aftermath of these tragedies, Syria is perhaps the most significant rebuttal to the mantra that might makes right. As such, Syria may be one of the last chances for the international community to show that it is a community based on the rule of international law and not on the mere whims of men. 

April 2017

*Dr. Doebbler is a Reseach Professor of Law at the University of Makeni in Sierra Leone, visiting Professor of Law at Webster University Geneva, and the Vice-President-Secretary of International-Lawyers.Org.

Ramsey Clark: ​An Imperative for Humankind

More than seventy years after the United States used the first nuclear weapon against the people of Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear weapons remain the most violent threat to humankind.
In 1996 the International Court of Justice responded to a request for an Advisory Opinion by indicating that while it could not say nuclear weapons were generally prohibited by international law, the fifteen judges could not think of an instance when their use would be consistent with international law. Moreover, the Court interpreted article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to require the good faith negotiation of disarming nuclear weapons. Despite this authoritative interpretation of a treaty that is legally binding on 190 countries, the United Nations Conference on Disarmament has failed to make any meaningful progress. For years, the Conference, which is the main negotiating forum for nuclear disarmament, has been unable to adopt an agenda. Thus, nuclear disarmament negotiations have not even started. This is not fair to humankind. Unless our diplomatic representatives can find the courage and common-sense to rid the world of nuclear weapons the threat of their use will plague humanity as the deadliest immediate threat to world peace. We need to urgently move forward with the negotiation of nuclear disarmament.

Some progress has been made on banning landmines by the adoption of the Ottawa Treaty in 1997 and its subsequent ratification by almost 170 States. But this progress is limited by the fact that this treaty deals only with anti-personnel mines and not anti-tank of other more powerful types of mines. Similarly, the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms has focused on the illegal trade in small arms, but not the legal sale of small arms nor their proliferation in many societies. Since 2013 about 80 Member States of the United Nations have become party to the Small Arms Trade Treaty, but some important countries, such as the United States have not joined the treaty. These treaties should be strengthened and their membership enlarged to include all countries. It is shameful to argue that human being have a right to carry weapons that can be used to massively slaughter other human beings. We must end this foolish interpretation of our right to bear arms and replace it with our commitment to the human right of all people to live in peace.

It is imperative that all States recommit to disarmament, which is stated in the Charter of the United Nations as one of the purposes of the United Nations in article 1, paragraph 1, which states that “The Purposes of the United Nations are …. [t]o maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace…”. 

The negotiations going on at United Nations Headquarters in New York until July 2017 are a timely opportunity for our political leaders to send a message of their commitment to peace. Adopting an agreement to ban nuclear weapons, even if nuclear weapon possessing States won’t join it right now, is the right thing to do.

It is our obligation and responsibility to ensure that we do everything in our power to ensure that those currently inhabiting the planet as well as future generations will be able to live in a world where they are not threatened by weapons, especially nuclear weapons. It is my hope that we will act without delay. The accomplishment of peace is the greatest gift that we can leave to future generations.

January 2017

Ramsey Clark: Farewell to a Friend and a Liberator

Fidel Castro was a friend and leader who really cared for his people. He was a man that I had known for almost half a century. A liberator who freed his people from tyranny.
I saw how he was overwhelming loved by his people. The several times I traveled with him through Cuba he was be mobbed by people expressing their admiration for him. I have never seen the same affection expressed for any American President. 

When I visited Fidel we would talk into the early hours of the morning about his political philosophy, what he had read—sometimes with the authors—and what could be done to improve the lives of people by providing them the necessities of life. 

Until very recently, I visited Cuba every year since the early 1970s. The first time I visited Cuba was with my parents staying in Havana at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in 1936. During the 1940s and 1950s I saw Cuba’s social problems mounting as economic and social differences accentuated. Fidel saw this as well and he acted to liberate his people from the tyranny of an elite class that had dwindling concern for the people of Cuba. 

Fidel’s greatest accomplishments included his liberation of his people from a historical tyranny, his commitment to protecting the public health, his efforts to export health care workers to help others, and his efforts to ensure access to education to all. 

You could find medical teams from Cuba all over the world and they were darn good doctors.

The schools, universities, medical clinics and hospitals in Cuba, and those run by Cubans who had been sent abroad by the government, were among the best in the world. 

In South America and Africa, countless people in owe their healthy lives to Fidel’s commitment to improving health and education around the world. I have traveled to isolated areas in South America and Africa where I would find highly-qualified Cuban doctors working for the people.

Fidel will be missed as a friend, not only by me, but by his people and by the countless number of people whom he helped.

December 2016

​Ramsey Clark: Gaza tests our humanity

The Palestinian people in Gaza live under some of the most inhumane conditions of any people on earth. On a daily basis Palestinians in Gaza—women, children, students, fishermen, policemen who are trying to protect civilians—are subject to assaults on their dignity and their lives. These assaults are not new or unusual, but have been part of daily life for more than 70 years. 
Often we justify our indifference by claiming that the government in Gaza is hostile to us, therefore we must be hostile to the people of Gaza. The truth is that the peace and justice party, which is linked to Hamas in Gaza, won an election that was widely acknowledged to be free and fair. Moreover, Hamas has never threatened the United States and has repeatedly sought to cooperate with the United States on a basis of mutual respect. It is true that Hamas opposes Israel, but that is because Israel was built on the Palestinian land that was taken without the consent of the Palestinian people. This happened despite the fact that the League of Nations had decided that the people of Palestine were to be given the right to decide their own future. Instead of facilitating this, as it was mandated to do, the British occupiers allowed Palestine to be overrun by outside intruders. How would any of us react if our house was overrun by armed intruders and we were forced into the street? This is exactly what happened throughout Palestine in 1948. Although the people of Gaza faced continued attacks, they also resiliently continue to demand their self-determination, a fundamental human right recognized under international law.

They do so despite the fact that the infrastructure of Gaza has been repeatedly destroyed by the aerial bombardment of the Israeli army that has periodically escalated in to an all-out war against the people of Gaza who are trapped in barely over 140 square miles of land that is completely surrounded by Israel. Even access to the sea is controlled by Israel. Recently four more fishermen were detained by Israel for trying to make a living fishing in Gaza’s territorial sea.

The history of Gaza is not one that reflects the situation over the past 70 years. Before Israel’s occupation, Gaza was a striving fishing port. It had seaside hotels, ports, and even an airport. The people of Gaza lived side-by-side in peace with Jews, Christians, and others. It was only in the early 20th Century when Israel began to consolidate its occupation of Palestine and to take the land of Palestinians, often by driving them from their homes, that Gaza began its path towards disaster.

Today, according to UNRWA, the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees, more than 80% of Gazans are dependent on humanitarian assistance. Civilians are detained arbitrarily at the will of the Israeli occupiers. Israel makes sporadic military incursions several times a year under cover of aerial bombardment. And Israel regularly bombs the people of Gaza carrying out both targeted killings of Gazans and indiscriminate bombings of Gazan villages, towns, and Gaza City. This vicious circle of violence has been ongoing for more than 70 years, thus from even before the United Nations was created. It is the longest-standing situation of massive and widespread human rights abuses on the United Nations agenda, yet it is too often ignored.

Gazans live in a state of terror that has been created by Israel, but forgotten by the rest of the world. Israel’s acts of State terrorism against the people of Gaza are almost never mentioned in international forums discussing the combating of terrorism, especially those forums that include the United States. So often when we speak of defending our values and protecting human lives we forget the lives of almost two million Gazans that are under threat daily from an Israeli government of which the United States is the biggest supporter.

The conditions of life under which the people of Gaza live test our humanity. If we are honest about upholding the values of the dignity of life and respect for human life, then we must show greater concern for the people of Gaza. Instead, we have criminalized those in the United States who seek to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza. The provision of humanitarian assistance can never be viewed as a hostile action, yet that is what we have done. Ignoring, the fact that more than thirty years ago the principle judicial body of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice based in The Hague in The Netherlands, with a senior U.S. judge sitting on the Court, decided that the provision of humanitarian assistance is never an illegal act. We should not need a Court to tell us this; our sense of morality should lead us to this conclusion.

Our sense of morality should tell us that we cannot sit silently as generations of Gazans are subjected to inhumane conditions of life. The conditions of life under which the people of Gaza live test our humanity. Our sense of morality—based on values of concern for human life—should tell us that this is wrong. The United States and each American should support an end to the destruction of Gaza and an end to the support for those any country or person advocating hatred and inhumanity against the Gazans living in Palestine. 

July 2016

Photo source: http://www.democracynow.org