The Times 1999-12-03  -  Legality of using force in Balkans - Opinion

From Mr Tobias Schumacher

Sir, There is no criterion in international law to demonstrate that "there was no other recourse except to military action" (letter, November 29). The basis, as Mark Littman, QC, points out (2nd opinion, November 16), is always the Charter of the UN.

Yet mere reliance on the charter's prohibition of the use of force cannot reflect the true position of modern international law. Mr Littman does not mention an important exception to this prohibition: the right of an oppressed people to secession from its oppressors. This includes the right to ask friendly states for support, which may entail military intervention.

While the Allies (with the notable exception of Tony Blair) have rejected moves towards Kosovan statehood, they have recognised the Kosovans' right to self-determination through autonomy within the Serbian state.

Military intervention can also be justified on humanitarian grounds. Here again, the charter forms only the backdrop of applicable international law which has now given the protection of human rights equal standing to prohibition of the use of force.

This, however, should not be regarded as a return to the "just war principle". Rather, it is an emergency power that sovereign states can exercise when a humanitarian catastrophe looms. The fact that there is no central organ to determine what qualifies as a human catastrophe makes it an emergency power that is difficult to justify, as has been shown by events in the Balkans.

Yet the existence of opposition to the war within the Allied states shows that it is, in a community of democratic states, not a power that can easily be abused as a catch-all justification for political intervention.

In the end, the intervening state will always have to justify its actions not only to its own people but also to other states and their peoples.

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