Is America now becoming an international outlaw?

by Ramesh Thakur

A week has proven to be a long time in international politics. On Aug. 26, arriving in Europe, NATO military strikes on Syria seemed both inevitable and imminent to punish it for alleged chemical weapons use on Aug. 21. On Thursday, the British Parliament rejected, by a 285-272 vote, the government motion that would have paved the way for British participation. Prime Minister David Cameron said he would respect the vote. By Friday, the United States was looking decidedly lonely and exposed in its hard-line stance that military attacks were still necessary and could be launched without U.N. sanction.

When Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush as U.S. president, the world, sick of the latter’s triumphalist, in-your-face unilateralism, heaved a collective sigh of relief. How ironic then that Obama risks making the U.S. the biggest international outlaw of our times.

Consider four examples. The intensified use of drones to kill foreign-based enemies has been described in a joint study by Stanford and New York University law schools — two of the world’s leading law faculties — as violating international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law and possibly also U.S. law. The creation of an uber surveillance state that spies massively and routinely on millions of Americans and foreigners has stirred an angry backlash. The refusal to prosecute the torturers and their legal enablers from the Bush regime, while pursuing, prosecuting and persecuting whistleblowers of government malfeasance, shows a strange perversion of priorities in the land of the free and brave.

Then there is the gathering Syria crisis so eerily reminiscent of Iraq in 2003 that the reprise seems scarcely credible. Unlike Iraq a decade ago, there actually is a brutal civil war going on in which 100,000 people have been killed, including soldiers, militants and civilians. That chemical weapons were used seems undeniable. But we do not know which chemical agents were used, what the casualties were and, most critically, who used them.

Elements on both sides are callous enough to use chemical weapons on innocent civilians. Western powers insist they have proof of regime culpability. After the Colin Powell theater of 2003, that will not convince a skeptical Western and international public. They will demand hard evidence. As things stand, strategic logic suggests strongly that the regime had everything to lose and the rebels much to gain by using chemical weapons and pointing the finger of criminality at Syrian President Bashar Assad. But circumstantial evidence points powerfully to regime culpability: the scale of use, the types of rockets used to deliver them, the direction from which they were fired, etc.

Fortuitously, there is an expert U.N. inspection team in country that should be given the mandate and time to forensically establish the facts and attribute guilt. The U.N. Security Council would be as criminally wrong not to mandate them as to authorize military reprisal before they have reported.

Military action without U.N. authorization would violate international law. No foreign country has been attacked by Syria. Other than self-defense against armed external attack, only U.N. authorization provides legal cover for military strikes. The international community cannot be collapsed into the FUKUS (France, U.K. and U.S.) coalition of the willing.

The Kosovo precedent from 1999 is no help. Contrary to the dominant NATO view, majority world opinion is that at best, that operation was illegal but legitimate in the circumstances; at worst, it was both illegal and illegitimate. This despite the fact that NATO had a U.N.-endorsed partial enforcement role in the Balkans for several years before the 1999 intervention, and that the Balkans is on Europe’s very borders.

Iraq in 2003 is the more relevant comparison, including a U.N. team that needs more time to complete its job on the ground.

The one significant development since 2003 is the unanimous adoption of the responsibility to protect (R2P) norm in 2005. As one of the main authors of the original R2P report in 2001, let me say two things. First, the use of chemical weapons does constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity, thereby triggering R2P which covers four atrocity crimes in all (the others being genocide and ethnic cleansing). The U.N. secretary general’s special advisers were right to call attention to this. If use is proven and guilt established, the U.N. as the custodian of our collective conscience must take appropriately tough action and hold the perpetrators criminally accountable.

But they failed to speak truth to power by not emphasizing, at a time when the FUKUS leaders were uttering public threats of military strikes unilaterally if necessary, that R2P action must be U.N.-authorized, in conformity with the U.N. Charter, and for civilian protection, not punishment. Not only did their statement lack even-handed balance. Worse, they risked becoming unwitting pawns (or Lenin’s useful idiots) in the Western strategy of escalating the crisis to unilateral military strikes, and so delegitimizing the very norm they are tasked to uphold and promote. Those clamoring for war could use the sentence “All these crimes must be investigated immediately, and those responsible for committing them held to account” to their own hawkish ends.

We worked hard in 2001 to craft R2P to distinguish it from the deeply controversial NATO “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo. We then spent many years convincing several skeptical governments that this was a change of substance, nut just language. If NATO were to launch military strikes on Syria by misusing R2P language, they will kill R2P. They will also sow the seeds of NATO’s own destruction, for it will have been transformed from the original alliance to protect members from an attack by the mighty Soviet Union, into an alliance to wage an aggressive war against a country outside Europe that has not attacked a single NATO member.

Fortunately, in a forceful speech at The Hague on Aug. 28, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the importance of the Security Council process for military action to be lawful.

To increasing numbers, it is Western powers who appear addicted to acts of serial aggression across the Middle East. They do neither themselves nor the world any favors by Orwellian talk of enforcing international law. Only those who show fidelity to law in their own actions can enforce it on the outlaws.

One wonders at which point will the Nobel committee cry: “Enough! We want our peace prize back, Mr. Obama.”

Ramesh Thakur, a former U.N. assistant secretary general and one of the authors of “The Responsibility to Protect,” is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The embracing of democracy internationally can only be a good thing, leading to more thorough scrutiny of actions of individual nation states in the international community, and more direct as well as broader-based accountability, for starters.

    • tesmith47

      yeah, yeah democracy is alright, but for lots of folks in the world human needs far out weigh political niceties

      • zer0_0zor0

        In this context, the international adoption of democratic institutions and the strengthening of international democratic institutions and international law relate to the securing the conditions that facilitate meeting human needs and preventing crisis that disrupt societies everywhere.

  • Moonraker


    The number one rogue state in the world right now is the USA.

    • It’s called hyperpuissance. And our friends, enemies and frenemies would do well to keep that in mind

    • TokyoTengu

      Sadly, I have to agree. We are on a very dangerous slope here. Not only are we coming close to destroying the concept of “international law” as a means for nation states to solve issues outside of military force, we are coming increasingly close to direct conflict between nuclear armed powers. Russia is making it increasingly clear that it has no intention of allowing Syria to be bombed in order to salve Obama’s wounded pride and their military movements in support of Assad are becoming more forceful daily.

      To America’s credit, however, it needs to be acknowledged that there are strident and persistent voices from all across the political spectrum that are resisting the administration’s reckless and provocative behavior, and who are unwilling to grant Obama the legitimacy he craves for his actions. Let’s all hope they prevail and that the United States can be dissuaded from throwing another match on the increasingly dangerous situation we now face.

  • Jaycasey

    We have much to thank the United States for. Over the last 80 years America has done more than anyone else to protect the international system, democracy, and to hold back the tyrants. We may not like everything they do but only an irresponsible twit could not see what shape the world would be in now if the Americans had not been willing to risk blood and treasure for freedom and progress.

  • General_Chaos

    It seems Mr. Thakur does not understand the organization he used to help run. The UN mission to Syria was never intended to assign blame or decide who used CW, but only to ascertain whether CW had been used and of what type.

    Either Mr. Thakur knows this and is willfully misrepresenting what the UN mission actually is or he does not know and is astoundingly ignorant of the institution he served.

    In either case it seems the entire purpose of this article is to justify the polemical headline.


  • messy1a

    the UN has always preferred dictatorship to democracy. That’s why it initially supported the Rwandan genocide.

  • gokyo

    It is time for the neighboring countries to start taking a more “active” role. They certainly have the money but it seems more profitable for them to allow the U.S. to be at the front of military action, allowing the U.S. continued economic empire building that seems to be the status quo for the past decades, regardless of who is or was president.

  • toumanbeg

    The law does not go where enforcement cannot reach. If the USA does not enforce the law, no one will, which means there will be no law.

    Syria and Assad are just the place and the man that brought the question of the USA policing the ‘World’s commons’ to a head.

    American society, unlike most, changes rapidly. Every 3 generations is the theory. I am a boomer, born post WW2. My Children are Generation X, cold war babies. My grandchildren are the millennials. Boomers inherited the idea of a global commons with the UN making the law and the USA enforcing it. That system has been in effect post WW2. It was effective in preventing another mega-war such as WW2. Or so it is claimed. Generation X is not real keen on the idea of a global commons. Support for the USA as a world cop is weak at best.

    The Millennials completely reject the theory. Since it is the Millennials that are doing the dying and Generation X is paying for it, what they think is important.

    So while I am positive the USA will act in Syria with military force, Syria is just the beginning. Boomers are dying. Generation X will not support eternal war to police the World Commons. When the Millennials take power they WILL stop it.

    That means no UN, no world commerce, No Law and Order. That means a return to the power politics of the 18th and 19th century. Only instead of a handful of European nations playing, there will be almost 200. Armed with WMD. Will the human population on this planet be reduced by 25% or 50%?
    What really scares me is that the millennials are growing up knowing nothing but terrorism. To them Genocide is just a word.

    So Islam has maybe 30 years to get their act together. Before my grandchildren show them what a real ‘war crime’ looks like.

  • Robert

    As an American, I for one must concede that the role of the U.S. Government in the world has been tarnished. And it didn’t start with the second Gulf War. The memories of an anguished young Kuwaiti girl testifying before Congress about the atrocities of Iraqi Invaders pulling babies out of incubators in order to liberate and return said incubators to Iraqi Hospitals are still clear to me.

    “Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor
    slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can
    get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally,
    the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor
    in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But,
    after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy
    and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is
    a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist

    Never have words rung more true than the above quote by Hermann Goering during his testimony at the Nuremberg Trials.

    I use the quote to refer to a time of relevance to most Americans living today. You see, somehow we got it ingrained in our collective conscience that somehow we were the designated super heroes of the planet.

    What with the atrocities that were discovered in the concentration camps…Not to mention some atrocities discovered about the activities your countrymen pulled in Nanking and other parts of Asia…We somehow got convinced of the inevitability of our cause.

    Most Americans will tell you today that Vietnam was justified. This was just a repeat of our valiant efforts to repeal the scourge of Communism which began with the Korean conflict…Sadly, this mentality has led us up to this minute.

    I am afraid that we as a nation are on the verge of a fall. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have but one wish for our role in history.

    That we recover from this time of callous war drumming and go on to develop a few more miracles such as this media that enables Americans and Japanese people to communicate half a world away with a few clicks on a keyboard.

    I hope we can be remembered as the first people that acquiesced gracefully before that terrible scepter of history which ultimately turns all great powers into foot notes. So far it’s not going well at all.

  • America an international outlaw? Certainly not, as far as its closest ally Japan is concerned.

    While a good number of countries would want to see US continue assuming the role of global policeman, others may not. Just that more often than not, an unrestrained only policeman may turn out to be the outlaw. (mtd1943)

    • $14141131

      Some of the countries that didn’t show interest in the US Syrian-strike initiative are hard up economies like the US that they can’t afford to spend a cent to placate Obama.

    • Hi, Japanese government’s concerning is not meant for my approval.
      I’ve never voted them, and I never admit or confirm our present government trying to cooperate US in any “force” operation without UN sanction.
      With UN sanction, it is still not easy to agree, since we have ancestors who had committed many things on abroad by force.

  • Mike Wyckoff

    The real problem IMHO is Russia and China using the UN security council for political gain. I am Canadian, so naturally we have no stake in anything. But for countries such as China or Russia to veto the use of force through the UN, I think the US has no alternative then to go it alone, so to speak…
    Thankfully France and other Arab states appear to be willing to finally end this conflict that has already claimed 100,000 (?) lives (not sure of the fatality #s)

    • 思德

      More and more Americans are tired of our country doing the dirty work, especially for things as absurd as some politician’s pride.

  • Toolonggone

    If you carefully listen to Obama or Bush, you will hear them saying, “This is America’s war. Not international war.” That’s how the US frames the international crisis and seeks its political power over UN to dictate the decisions. This is exactly what W did ten years ago, and Obama is following the same path at his own risk.

  • Taylor Wettach

    As an American of generally internationalist bent who aspires to objectivity and who has been comparatively active in foreign policy, I usually try to avoid defenses of the United States. However, as a private citizen with a strong interest in human rights who has met and was inspired by the author Ramesh Thakur, it is difficult not react to this piece.

    It is very disappointing to see the author, someone who has played such an important role in the defense of humanitarianism through his development of R2P, get so caught up in his means that he blindly sacrifices his ends. If some humanitarian action is performed, to whatever minor degree, it will come through the efforts of the United States. To assume that it will come through the UN Security Council paints the author as quite out of touch with reality. Ultimately then, Thakur’s caustic and hyperbolic claim that the Obama Administration (home to major R2P cheer leaders Susan Rice and Samantha Powers, and to a hell of a lot more friends of R2P than in the Chinese and Russian governments combined) is making the United States “the biggest international outlaw of our times ” isn’t helping anyone- not Thakur, not supporters of R2P, and certainly not the Syrian people.

  • keithporter

    I have deep respect for Ramesh Thakur. But I would hate to see what he would have written if President Obama had actually ordered a military strike against Syria. I
    also wish my friend Ramesh would have taken one sentence to assess whether Basahr
    Al-Assad has (or has not) upheld his R2P pillar one responsibility to
    protect all the people living within his borders.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Do you mean against the foreign sponsored sectarian rebel and extremist groups?

  • Very creditable article.
    Few of points which still makes me wonder are, “The U.N. Security Council would be as criminally wrong not to mandate them as to authorize military reprisal before they have reported”, I couldn’t have got this point and “Orwellian talk”, either.
    “Strategic logic suggests strongly that the regime had everything to lose” and “the rebels much to gain by using chemical weapons and pointing the finger of criminality at Syrian President Bashar Assad” are very convincing.
    “Only those who show fidelity to law in their own actions can enforce it on the outlaws” is quite clear to appear his point.
    Analysis by Nato’s spirit is also convincing.
    I think I’d heard about cluster bomb using which had been reported during Libya upheaval, which then regime strongly denied, how would it have ended up to be, barely heard after Human Rights Watch reported it, maybe just I haven’t.

  • 思德

    Good thing I don’t care enough about international law to worry about whether my country is an “outlaw” or not. What I do care about is how my country behaves in an objective sense, and it has been the most aggressive and violent nation in the international stage for decades now. We need to stop trying to police the world, play God, be the UN’s leg breaker, and go back to taking care of #1.

  • Casper Steuperaert

    The UN could start with improving the world by taking the Veto right away from countries like the US and Russia so the smaller nations can speak up to them. Actually, the UN should just scrap veto right alltogether. it isn’t democratic

  • Ben_Hall_AU

    Silence gives consent;

    nobody has the right to consent to the genocide in Syria no matter their apathy, misguided knowledge and abstract insults against the Syrian people in their revolution to self-determination and freedom and dignity.

    You only see hypocrisy when you think democracy is some kind of faith.