Missile strikes against Syria 'as serious as triggering events', says US expert

Prior to the Trump administration, the US consistently attempted to justify reprisals through creative characterisation of the facts to fit the self-defence paradigm, says world-renowned expert on international law, Mary Ellen O'Connell, the Marion Short Professor of Law and research professor of international dispute resolution. She is the author of The Popular but Unlawful Armed Reprisal, due to be published in the Ohio Northern Law Review.


Mary Ellen O'Connell

As the Trump administration considers military operations against Syria in the wake of a suspected chemical weapons attack Saturday, 7 April in the town of Douma, a University of Notre Dame Law School professor and world-renowned expert on international law on the use of force says a reprisal attack would be illegal.

The use of chemical weapons is correctly characterised as a war crime, but there is an utter failure to recognise that a punitive military attack in response violates fundamental international law. Those who target citizens with chemical weapons should be held accountable, but the way accountability is imposed must also comply with the law. Attacking after such incidents amounts to unlawful reprisals, and unlawful reprisals in which people die belong in the same category of international crimes as the use of banned weapons.
Currently in residence at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, O'Connell says reprisal attacks are a serious breach of the United Nations charter.
President Trump has warned via tweet that 'missiles will be coming' to Syria to enforce the norm against using chemical weapons. He is going to break the law to save it, reminding me of the old US strategy in Vietnam of destroying a village to save it. And we know how well that turned out.
In her forthcoming research paper, O'Connell points to armed reprisals last year in Syria carried out by the United States and Iran in the wake of chemical and terror attacks.
Despite support for their actions even by countries such as Germany and France, retaliatory uses of force are clearly prohibited under international law," she writes. "International law generally prohibits all use of armed force with narrow exceptions for self-defence, United Nations Security Council authorisation, and consent of a government to participate in a civil war. Military force after an incident are reprisals, which have been expressly forbidden by the UN.
Prior to the Trump administration, O'Connell says the US consistently attempted to justify reprisals through creative characterisation of the facts to fit the self-defence paradigm.
Following the April 2017 attacks, the US did not even offer one of these insufficient attempts at justification, she states. Nine people reportedly died in last year's attack, including four children. What was achieved? The implications of these latest developments on international law for the U.S. and the world are grave. Human lives have been taken in violation of the law. The whole attempt to condemn chemical attacks and terrorism becomes at best counterproductive when the response involves a law violation as serious as the triggering offence.