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What do Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Moammar Qaddafi of Libya, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe all have in common? They are all dictators still in power causing mass terror and destruction to their suffering nations. International law prohibits genocide and acts of cruelty which tyrants regularly invoke against their citizens. Yet, despite the clear violations of international law, removing abusive leaders from power, or even orchestrating an arrest, poses a difficult task for the international legal community. Although international law forbids using force to intervene with other state actors, exceptions exist for instances of necessary humanitarian intervention.

The 1948 UN Genocide Convention (Convention)was the first treaty to outline when a state may use force against a violent state-actor. Established in the aftermath of WWII, the Convention defined genocide as the “intentional killing, destruction, or extermination of groups or members of a group” and declared that member states “have a duty to not let genocide go unpunished.” The Convention dictates that states may intervene only by supplying peaceful humanitarian aid to victims, through an invitation from the host nation, or with the authorization of The UN Security Council (UNSC). Article Two of the UN Charter precludes states from sending in armed forces or supplying weapons or other forms of war materials by defining these acts as forms of unlawful aggression.

Despite the stringent restrictions and international debate, the UNSC authorized the use of force to prevent human rights abuse numerous times since its creation. In 1994, the UNSC worked alongside French forces to enact a large-scale military operation in response to the  genocide in Rwanda. During the Korean War in 1950, the UNSC, unable to authorize intervention due a member state’s veto, transferred its power over to the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The UNGA then stepped in to “recommend” collective action from South Korea and the US against North Korean aggressors. In the decades following the Korean War, Western nations frustrated by the slow-moving UNSC continued using the UNGA as a tool to circumvent the UNSC’s authority and justify acts of aggressive humanitarian intervention. The shift in power caused an expansion of Article 2, Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which stipulates instances of permitted forceful humanitarian invention.

Years after the 1948 Geneva Convention, the United States Congress passed The Genocide Accountability Act of 2007 (GAA). The Act expanded the lawful prosecution of genocide and authorized US officials to apprehend any offender who “brought into, or found in the United States,” even if the violating conduct occurred outside of US territory. The GAA granted states the universal jurisdiction needed to bring violent criminals to justice. While US law dictates permissible instances of forceful intervention, the Law of War regulates the scope of the US’s attack and mandates all nations to use the “principle of proportionality.” The principle holds that an intervening state “must not cause incidental loss of civilian life or destruction of civilian objects that is out of proportion to the direct and concrete military advantage.” Although the expansion of US law served as a crucial step towards lawful intervention, international law still forbids its member states from using force or threatening another nation, except for certain exceptions that still remain highly contentious within the international community. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is reflected in Article 2(7)’s use of force exception that enables states to “use armed force to preserve or restore international peace and security” on the condition that Article 41’s measures of diplomatic relations and economic sanctions prove ineffective. Accordingly, the Charter stipulates that when a state must intervene, “plans for the application of armed force must be made with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee.” The UNSC’s coordination with the Military Staff Committee is a laborious process, and often hinders a state’s ability to act efficiently.

Ultimately, all international treaties, conventions, and declarations are motivated by the same overarching goal: maintaining global peace and security. Nevertheless, the path to maintaining this security, especially during instances of grave humanitarian abuse, is not a simple one. Both the Responsibility to Protect and Article 2(7) of the UN Charter aim to provide guidance to concerned nations seeking to defend the abused. Although the Charter grants states the right to intervene on behalf of international security, the use of force must be self-defense in response to imminent acts of aggression. The assassination of a brutal leader as a form of “anticipatory self-defense” is only permitted where the death “may actually prevent a nuclear or biological or other highly destructive form of warfare.”

In the past two decades, the US has led forceful humanitarian interventions, bypassing the proper legal channels and carrying out attacks under the claim of preventing widespread violence. Working with local rebel forces, the US invaded and subsequently killed two tyrannical leaders: Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. In both instances, the US asserted R2P and acted without proper UNSC authorization in violation of international law. Although the US evaded punishment both times, the lack of repercussions was no indication of the legality. Further, while the past invasions were illegally implemented, provisions do exist which permit assassination and aggression as lawful means of enforcement. While exceptions to the use of force may be limited, international law allows for states to forcefully “take down” an abusive dictator when necessary.