NATO action unwisely undercuts U.N.

Commentary by Peter Erlinder, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Sunday 4 April 1999

No matter what the outcome of the NATO bombing campaign, the fundamental architecture of international law, centered on the United Nations during the 50 years since World War II, has suffered a severe blow from which it may never recover.

The delicate, and sometimes contradictory, balance between “national sovereignty,” upon which the U.N. Charter is premised, and “the human rights of individuals against oppressive governments,” articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been altered forever. The result is likely to be more international chaos, war crimes and acts of genocide, and the American people will be asked to pay the price for generations to come.

Under the United Nations Charter and subsequent U.N. resolutions, the use of force is banned unless specifically authorized by the Security Council, after the Security Council has determined that peaceful methods have failed, or when “self-defense” is required in the case of an armed attack. It is a clear violation of fundamental United Nations principles for one sovereign member state to attack another, even for “humanitarian purposes.”

While this may seem to be an inhumane technicality in the face of apparent acts of brutality, like those alleged in Kosovo, there are important historical reasons for this seemingly irrational respect for national sovereignty. One of the important lessons of WWII was that militarily powerful states can use “humanitarian intervention” to justify military action that expands international conflicts and increases the suffering of innocent civilians.

Germany announced that it was “protecting the rights of oppressed Germans” when it annexed part of Czechoslovakia. Mussolini invaded Ethiopia to “liberate and civilize” the Ethiopian people. The Japanese invaded Manchuria to “defend the Manchurians from Chinese bandits.” When the United Nations was founded in 1945, it was well understood that claims of humanitarian intervention were not always humane.

Respect for national sovereignty was the mechanism that the U.N. Charter adopted to prevent powerful nations from using “humanitarian intervention” as a guise for military adventurism and imperialism. It is the cornerstone of all international legal systems.

This respect for national sovereignty, however, does not mean that the United Nations and international law holds national sovereignty above all else, and ignores the plight of those oppressed by their own governments. The Nazi War Crimes Tribunals made clear that brutal leaders cannot use “national sovereignty” as a defense for genocide and other crimes against humanity.

In 1948 the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out specific rights that all governments were obliged to respect. The United Nations also passed other resolutions outlawing politically motivated rape and other crimes against humanity.

The recently established War Crimes Tribunals, set up in the aftermath of acts of genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, was the first step to creating international juridical bodies capable of punishing war criminals and acts of genocide. Under this emerging structure of international human rights law, leaders like Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein can be held liable for war crimes or acts of genocide, if these U.N. bodies and international legal principles are fully supported by the member states.

Unfortunately, as the United States has risen to hyperpower status, it has repeatedly undermined the effectiveness and authority of these international bodies. The United States has economically crippled the United Nations by refusing to pay more than $1 billion in back dues. It has refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the World Court when the decisions of that body, such as the decision declaring nuclear weapons illegal, are contrary to current U.S. policy. The United States also opposed the creation of the War Crimes Tribunal and has refused to cooperate with its investigations, or with seizing war criminals under indictment. Now, the NATO bombing has further degraded this emerging international legal structure.

The world's only remaining superpower has established the principle that, once again, claims of humanitarian intervention can be used to justify acts of war against a sovereign nation without U.N. authorization. How this principle might be used to justify U.S. military intervention in the future is anyone's guess. Should the United States intervene to protect the Kurds from Turkish depredations? Will it defend the Chechens who are surrounded and oppressed by hostile Russians? What about the Colombian people being killed in their thousands by government-supported paramilitaries?

Of course, the United States cannot intervene every time a brutal regime oppresses its own people, because such oppression simply occurs too frequently. It is much more likely that America will only intervene for “humanitarian reasons” when it serves short-term U.S. policy interests. Even if the United States could apply the policy of humanitarian intervention evenly, consistently and fairly, the result will not be a more stable and humane world order.

At the close of the 20th century, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, and its allies, are establishing the principle that nations with sufficient military power and claims of “humanitarian purpose” can act independently of the United Nations structure, as long as an even larger military power does not intervene to stop them. This lesson will not be lost on future local and regional Hitlers, who have the military means to “liberate” their “oppressed neighbors.”

When other countries begin their own “humanitarian interventions” in the next century, the people of the United States may well come to regret the absence of a strong United Nations. Without the U.N. structure to rely on, the only alternative for addressing future war crimes and genocide, as well as the “humanitarian intervention” of other nations, will be ever-escalating and virtually limitless demands on U.S. military power, including the use of ground troops. Future generations of Americans will pay the long-term costs of this last great military adventure of the 20th century, no matter what the outcome.