International Law and Military Might
Carol Masters, Becketwood Member
We’re hearing the phrase “international law” in reference to decisions to take punishing military action against the Syrian government. That killing is legal seems paradoxical, but the international laws being referenced today are sometimes called the Rules of War. In 1907, nations met in The Hague, Netherlands to adopt rules of warfare called The Hague Conventions, and agreed to prohibit the use of certain weapons, especially those employing poison and weapons that cause unnecessary suffering.
After two devastating world wars, nations met in Geneva, Switzerland to try to mitigate the cruelty of how those recent wars were fought. The Geneva Conventions again limited what military forces could or couldn’t do during a war. Along with proscriptions against targeting noncombatants and harming prisoners, “indiscriminate” weapons were prohibited. Later Protocols or additions to the Geneva Conventions were embraced, further limiting what weapons could be used. Four standards were set: (1)Weapons may not have an adverse effect off the legal field of battle (the "territorial" test). (2)Weapons can only be used for the duration of an armed conflict. A weapon that is used or continues to act after the war is over violates this criterion ("temporal" test). (3)Weapons may not be unduly inhumane. (4)Weapons may not have an unduly negative effect on the natural environment.
I am no expert on International Law. But I have been involved in protest against indiscriminate weapons for three decades. In 2004, three groups of protestors, at separate times, went on trial for trespass at a depleted uranium munitions manufacturer (Alliant TechSystems). We claimed a right to be on the property on the basis of international law. Some testified about trips to Iraq and seeing first-hand the effects of attacks on the civilian population of Iraq since the 1991 war. Others told of meeting with Iraqi doctors and gaining access to images of children born grossly malformed because of the radioactive dust from depleted uranium weapons. Medical evidence then and since has implicated depleted uranium weapons in increased cancers, leukemia, and birth defects in Iraqis and among U.S. soldiers. My testimony was more selfish; my brother was in the Air Force during the first Gulf War, stationed in Riyadh. As we stood to receive the verdict I was shaking, not because I feared a sentence, but because I so wanted to convince people of the horror of the weapons and that human law forbade them. To our surprise, the verdict was “not guilty.” The two other trial groups that month also were found not guilty.
Last week, a few of us from Becketwood took part in one of the demonstrations against attacking Syria - there have been several. A recent sign was “Chemical Weapons: Who used Agent Orange, napalm, white phosphorus, depleted uranium?” reminding us the U.S. government may not have the moral standing to condemn others. The U.S. does, however, have a moral responsibility to cease manufacture, stockpiling, or using such weapons and doing everything in our power to pressure and negotiate with other nations for a cease-fire.
The U.S. has considerable power, and I’m not talking about the barrel of a gun. As the President said in his declaration that he would take the war decision to the Congress, “I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” He also said we are a “constitutional democracy.” When our Constitution was being written, those who drafted it believed we would be a member of a community of nations, and Article VI of the Constitution states that treaties made between nations become “the supreme law of the land,” binding agreements, superseding state and federal laws. My hope is that we can follow the law and the dearest hopes of the international community and work to see that such weapons are never used again.