International Law and the Descent toward Barbarism: MSF —“Wars are being fought as in ‘barbarian times’

International Law constitutes the structure and the fabric which helps to hold international society back from a descent into barbarism.

But, as is the case in holding any government accountable to law, the efficacy of international law depends on its being actively invoked and supported by citizens. In th international sphere, this “demand for law” must come from citizens in diffrent countries around the world, and their governments.

We have observed for some time that adherence to and support for international law and institutions has become highly problematical in the foreign policy decision making of the United States and other countries. In the news story below, the head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) highlights the disregard for humanitarian law (“the laws of war”) that belligerents have increasingly shown in recent years.

For MSF’s warning relating to the demise of humanitarian law in armed conflicts, see

Kareem Shaheen (Beirut), “Wars are being fought as in ‘barbarian times’, warns MSF chief; Charity head speaks out after hospital attacks and says focus on terrorism is threatening the rules which govern warfare,” The Guardian, March 7, 2016 (06.58 EST).

Particularly troubling is the attack on a MSF hospital in Kunduz in Afghanistan by U.S. forces, under circumstances that strongly suggest that it was deliberate.

Last October, an MSF hospital in Afghanistan’s Kunduz district was destroyed after an hour of sustained airstrikes by the United States, despite repeated calls by the charity to the American-led coalition and the fact its GPS coordinates had been provided in advance.

“I think the last [attack in Syria] and the event in Kunduz, what is striking is the precision of the attack, the insistence of the attack and the persistence of the attack over time,” (MSF President Joanne Liu) said.

MSF has continued to insist on an independent investigation into the Kunduz strikes – Liu said it was obvious the attack was very precise, since even trees around the hospital compound were completely intact, whereas much of the hospital itself was burned to the ground.

–Kareem Shaheen, above.

Without the moral compass international law, including international human rights law and humanitariann law, we are ultimately lost.
We can see this happening now, every day, as the statement of the president of MSF quoted above makes clear.

For the United States, the turn away from international has marked a sharp aberration from the open support of international law and institutions, and for building new ones to deal with new challenges (potential militarization of space or of the seabed, for example).

Under President George W. Bush and President Barck Obama, the turn away from international law, underway since the administration of Ronald Reagan in the early 1980’s, accelerated sharply.

One need only mention the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in flagrant violation of Article 2 paragraph 4 of the United Naitons Charter, the adoption of torture as the official policy of the U.S. under Geroge W. Bush and Barack Obama’s failure to bring those responsible for torture to justice as required by the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and the failure to stand up strongly against Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008 and in the Ukraine and the Criimea in 2014.

Even France, one of the cradles of democratic values and the struggle for freedom, since the French Revolution, has adopted internal security laws which give police and anti-terrorism officials some of the powers of a police state, where such actions are not subject to any requirements of judicial authorization or judicial review.

In the end, it appears that those who have not studied and grasped the lessons of 20th century history, particularly in Europe cannot understand what is at stake in the ongoing struggles of the 21st century, and the actions that need to be taken to avoid the repetition of the horrors the United Nations was found in 1945 to prevent.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.