International Law in a Power-based World

The long-simmering crisis in the Middle East represents the collective failure of the states of the world to uphold the values and rules of peaceful coexistence. It is a manifestation of their collective failure to uphold international law, which could not only have prevented the genesis of this crisis but also its exacerbation over the decades that followed. International law unequivocally addresses aggression and occupation in international relations.

Article 2(4) of the United Nations (UN) Charter prohibits “the threat or use of force” in international relations and establishes respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of other states. This provision is not only an essential part of treaty law but has also been reaffirmed over time through its observance in customary law. Thus, it traces its roots back to a long history of practice and development of international law. Aggression, especially unprovoked, against a state is, therefore, in violation of its sovereignty under international law. As the predecessor to the UN Charter, Article 10 of the Covenant of the League of Nations was among the first contemporary pieces of international law to establish “the territorial integrity and existing political independence” of member states against “external aggression”. Both of these articles have their roots directly in the fourteenth point of Woodrow Wilson, which laid down “affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” The vision behind this was a comity of states which would pave the way for peaceful coexistence, and a rules-based international order.

In addition to issuing ambiguous and ruinous declarations, the world powers have been feeding the war machine, which is used for committing horrors and  “unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”.

The post/Westphalian system has been organised along these lines to prevent the state of anarchy that led to successive world wars and the death and destruction that followed them. In this regard, the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), as a supplement to the League Charter, was instrumental in renouncing “war as an instrument of national policy”. However, despite these laws and instruments, aggression has remained a defining feature of the international system. Aggression is intuitively established with any direct or indirect activity that poses a threat to a state, as defined by the UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) (Definition of Aggression). Article 3 of this resolution identifies aggression as “any military occupation” or an attack or invasion by the armed forces of one state into the territory of another. Bombardment by one state’s armed forces against another state’s territory, in addition to the use of any kind of weapons, is also considered an act of aggression. In addition to the armed forces, such acts by mercenaries, armed groups, and irregulars sent by or on behalf of another state also fall under this category under Article 3(g). Similarly, Article 5 of the same definition establishes that no considerations of military, political, or any other nature may justify aggression. Clause 3 of Article 5 states that no special advantage or territorial acquisition “resulting from aggression is or shall be recognised as lawful”. Additionally, using banned weaponry in illegal aggression adds to the crimes against international peace by violating international humanitarian law. In adopting this resolution on the definition of aggression, the world body has expressly reaffirmed “that the territory of a state shall not be violated by being the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or other measures of force,” nor shall it “be the object of acquisition by another State resulting from such measures or the threat thereof”.

Furthermore, as per the Preamble of the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, all states have the duty to refrain from not only the use of force but also the threat of the use of force “to violate international lines of demarcation”, including armistice lines. These clauses, thus, also plainly indicate that any direct or indirect occupation of the territory of a state enabled by another is unlawful under international law. Therefore, the unilateral change to the existing borders of any state is contrary to international law since it not only violates their territorial integrity but also coincides with the threat or use of force, which has been declared unlawful under international law.

Territorial integrity is also closely linked with the political independence of the state. So, in addition to the inviolability of state borders, the exercise of political rights within those borders is also protected under international law. Political independence entails the freedom from foreign intervention in the domestic matters of a state. The freedom of political institutions and decision-making and autonomy in domestic and foreign affairs are also protected under the right of political independence. Therefore, any kind of foreign intervention, direct or indirect, to undermine political independence and territorial integrity is illegal under international law. The support for subversive or armed activities of non-state actors falls under intervention. This includes, in addition to the use of direct military force, diplomatic, political and economic interference. Besides, the illegal settlement of foreign populations and directly or indirectly undermining the rule and sovereignty of the original government in their state is illegal under international law.

These laws trace a long history of struggle to establish a just world order that represents the collective values of humanity. As these provisions make abundantly clear, respect for territorial integrity and political independence is a crucial and fundamental principle of the international system to preserve international peace. Yet the progenitors of contemporary international law and their successors have time and again violated this rule with appalling consequences, where Iraq and Afghanistan stand out as glaring examples. The long-standing conflict in Palestine is yet another example. In addition to issuing ambiguous and ruinous declarations, the world powers have been feeding the war machine, which is used for committing horrors and  “unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”. Instead of defending the world order, they are now thrusting the world into anarchy and have appointed the scourge of war over the succeeding generations.

Natasha Khan

Natasha Khan is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies, NUST, Islamabad. Her research focuses include discourse analysis, defense and security, and international relations. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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