Defining a Just War | The Nation


Defining a Just War

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II. LEGALIST/UN APPROACH International treaties that deal with terrorism on civil aircraft call for cooperation in apprehending suspects and allow for their subsequent indictment and prosecution by national courts. Such laws could in theory be invoked to capture Osama bin Laden and his leading associates and charge them with international crimes, including crimes against humanity. A tribunal could be constituted under the authority of the United Nations, and a fair trial could then be held that would avoid war and the ensuing pain, destruction and associated costs. The narrative of apocalyptic terrorism could be laid before the world as the crimes of Nazism were bared at Nuremberg.

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Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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But this course is unlikely to deal effectively with the overall threat. A public prosecution would give bin Laden and associates a platform to rally further support among a large constituency of sympathizers, and conviction and punishment would certainly be viewed as a kind of legal martyrdom. It would be impossible to persuade the United States government to empower such a tribunal unless it was authorized to impose capital punishment, and it is doubtful that several of the permanent members of the Security Council could be persuaded to allow death sentences. Beyond this, the evidence linking bin Laden to the September 11 attacks and other instances of global terrorism may well be insufficient to produce an assured conviction in an impartial legal tribunal, particularly if conspiracy was not among the criminal offenses that could be charged. European and other foreign governments are unlikely to be willing to treat conspiracy as a capital crime. And it strains the imagination to suppose that the Bush Administration would relinquish control over bin Laden to an international tribunal. On a more general level, it also seems highly improbable that the US government can be persuaded to rely on the collective security mechanisms of the UN even to the unsatisfactory degree permitted during the Gulf War. To be sure, the UN Security Council has provided a vague antiterrorist mandate as well as an endorsement of a US right of response, but such legitimizing gestures are no more than that. For better and worse, the United States is relying on its claimed right of self-defense, and Washington seems certain to insist on full operational control over the means and ends of the war that is now under way. Such a reliance is worrisome, given past US behavior and the somewhat militaristic character of both the leadership in Washington and the broader societal orientation in America toward the use of overwhelming force against the nation's enemies.

Yet at this stage it is unreasonable to expect the US government to rely on the UN to fulfill its defensive needs. The UN lacks the capability, authority and will to respond to the kind of threat to global security posed by this new form of terrorist world war. The UN was established to deal with wars among states, while a transnational actor that cannot be definitively linked to a state is behind the attacks on the United States. Al Qaeda's relationship to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is contingent, with Al Qaeda being more the sponsor of the state rather than the other way around.

Undoubtedly, the world would be safer and more secure with a stronger UN that had the support of the leading states in the world. The United States has for years acted more to obstruct than to foster such a transformation. Surely the long-term effects of this crisis should involve a new surge of support for a reformed UN that would have independent means of financing its operations, with its own peacekeeping and enforcement capabilities backed up by an international criminal court. Such a transformed UN would generate confidence that it could and would uphold its charter in an evenhanded manner that treats people equally. But it would be foolish to pretend that the UN today, even if it were to enjoy a far higher level of US support than it does, could mount an effective response to the September 11 attacks.

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