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Trump, Assad and international law

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp
April 14, 2017

The US missile strike on a Syrian airbase was a violation of international law, and it must be condemned as such, writes DW's Kersten Knipp. Accepting it would lead to even greater injustice.

Syrien Luftwaffenstützpunkt Shairat nach US-Angriff
Image: picture-alliance/Sputnik/M. Voskresenskiy

Barrel bombs, torture rooms and alleged chemical weapons attacks: The Assad regime has committed some of the worst kinds of war crimes against its people. After six years of relentless violence, it is difficult to accept that Bashar al-Assad is still in power.

Even more difficult is that international law cannot be brought to bear, as the US attack on a regime airbase - ordered by President Donald Trump - demonstrates once again. The vast majority of international law experts consider the attack a violation of it. The strike may be morally comprehensible, but that does not make it legal.

This raises the question: What purpose does international law serve if it cannot stop a tyrant from committing crimes against his people? Is international law not vulnerable to cynical abuse? What does it even cover?

Legal limits

The trouble with international law, like all law, is its fundamental imperfection. International law is the product of legal arrangements at the global level - an unending renewal of talks and agreements. It is based on conventions from those participating in negotiations and the legal process. The result is varying and contradictory concepts cropping up across international law.

Knipp Kersten Kommentarbild App
DW's Kersten Knipp

"A normative network emerged with some areas doubly and triply covered and other areas with holes," explains Angelika Nussberger of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

International law can never be perfect, but yet it offers something great: Painful exceptions aside, international law can keep world powers in check. There is broad agreement that conflict can be regulated by legal and generally recognized norms. Most states adhere to this principle; only very few want to be seen in open violation of the law. Assad's regime belongs to the latter.

Eroding norms

Even in dealing with Assad, upholding the tenets of international law is the right thing to do. The Trump-ordered missile strike was not a violation on the magnitude of Assad's daily crimes, but it was a violation of norms that corrodes law from the inside out. The attack was neither one in self defense nor conducted under a United Nations mandate.

We know how dangerous doing away with norms can be. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was as much a violation of international law as Russia's annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Both show that the right of the strong prevails when international law is violated. The excuses and justifications accompanying these violations are nothing more than an attempt to restore this archaic right. Undermining international law undermines the global community as a whole.

International law is not a system for an ideal world. To the contrary, it is an effort to make a hardly ideal reality a bit more predictable and stable. If we give up this effort, barbarians like Assad are just a precursor to a new barbarianism on the global level. This is precisely what international law has long defended us from.

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East