Uncle Sam versus International Law

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The recent decision by the federal government to send troops toAfghanistan under American command sparked little public debate. AnIpsos-Reid poll indicated that most Canadians are OK with it. Too bad. Itis a move in the direction of changing the meaning of what it is to beCanadian and not for the better.

Think of the global village as a grouping of about 200 households. Ifdaily life is not to deteriorate into chaos, the villagers need to agreeon a set of rules for getting along with each other. One of the most basicsets of norms has to do with violence and its control.

Everyone in the village has agreed not to commit unprovoked violence. Itis against the law for anyone to assault anyone else but if that happensthe village rules say that no retaliatory action will take place withoutthe express permission of a committee of elders — the security council. Ifillegally attacked, one may defend oneself but that is basically the onlyexcuse for committing violence without a security council mandate.

The United Nations mission to Afghanistan, which Canada could have joined, has theblessing of the UN Security Council but the US presence does not. In itsResolution No. 1373 of 28 September the Security Council condemned theterrorist attacks. It also reaffirmed the right of UN members toself-defence. It did not, however, explicitly sanction US intervention.

More recently, in Resolution 1386 of 20 December, the Council gave itsblessing to the International Security Assistance Force but, once again,did not comment on the presence of US troops.Uncle Sam justified his incursion in Afghanistan on the basis that he isactually engaging in pre-emptive self defence. That justification isdubious according to those who have knowledge of the fine print ofinternational law.

Although one has the right to defend oneself, that doesnot mean that it is OK to go around attacking anybody suspected ofcontemplating future wrong-doing. Nevertheless, self-defence in responseto a pre-meditated attack does provide a formal justification for the USintervention.

Canada, on the other hand, was not attacked. Legally, it has no excuse forsending troops abroad with malevolent intent. In doing so it is not onlybreaking international law but also breaking with the long and honourableCanadian tradition of peace-keeping.

In the global village, because there is no standing police force, the lawis effective largely to the extent that village members feel morallycompelled to abide by it. Even in nation states most laws work this way.

People obey them because they feel that offending them is wrong. Fear ofpunishment plays a role in law enforcement but usually a secondary one.By cavalierly offending international law Canada is engaging in activitiesthat undermine established standards and thereby encouraging futurethuggery and insecurity.

In recent years, especially since George Bush the younger ascended topower, the US has been increasingly disregarding global law and opinion.Under Bush, America has been acting as if it believes that its dominanteconomic and military position in the world makes it exempt frominternational law. Nations that behave in that manner are defined as roguestates.

By deciding to join Uncle Sam in his righteous, but illegal,vigilante action we are defining ourselves as Baby Rogue. I doubt that isthe image that most Canadians want to see reflected when they look in themirror.

This adventure will result in the lives of Canadian men and women beingput in harm’s way. In addition to the estimated thousands that havealready died, more innocent Afghanis may become collateral damage but thistime at the hands of Canadians engaged in questionable activities.

Canada’s reputation as a world leader in global civility is also being putat risk. Had we been under severe pressure from the US to provide troopsor suffer the consequences of America’s wrath, that might at least haveprovided some excuse, even if one with little honour.

But there is littleevidence that the US applied such pressure. We were, it seems, more than“ready, aye, ready” to turn international outlaw in order to please thebig angry dude next door.

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