Without International Law, “anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

The Second Coming (published 1921)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats

The first stanza of William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, The Second Coming”, sounds like a warning. But the second stanza could predict the future. These are words to be heeded.

For four centuries international statesmen have sought to build the edifice of international law in order to limit the barbarities of war, and to establish a canon of rules that would facilitate relations among states. Since 1945, and the advent of the United Nations Charter and its prohibition against the threat or use of force across international frontiers, the edifice of international law and the actions of states to support and uphold it have succeeded in avoiding a major war among the superpowers. To date, relying on international law, the countries of the world have succeeded in avoiding a world war such as the two conflagrations of the 2oth century, World War I and World War II, whose devastation gave rise to the vision of the world’s leaders enshrined in the U.N. Charter.

There was nothing inevitable about the U.N. Charter. It was created by visionaries determined to avoid a repetition of the two wars that had devastated the world.

Now, the edifice of international law and the United Nations Charter is teetering.

With leaders like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at the helm of three of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, international law is increasingly disregarded–not even mentioned–when the use of force across international frontiers is concerned.

A current example of this phenomenon involves the invasion of Syria by Turkey to establish a so-called “safe zone” under the control of Turkish troops.

Another current example is the assertion by the United States that it will station troops in Syria to protect oil assets.

Neither action is permitted by international law without the consent of the the territorial sovereign, Syria.

Turkey has sought to justify its actions as an exercise of the right of self-defense as authorized by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. The argument is ludicrous, as none of the requirements for the exercise of the right of self-defense have been met. There has been no “armed attack” as required by Article 51, there has been no necessity of such a response, and there exists no proportionality in the nature of the response to an attack which has not occurred.

Earlier violations of international law have led to the current state of international anarchy, in which leading superpowers both violate the prohibition against the use of force and fail to object to such violations.

Russia has invaded Ukraine, seizing the Crimea by military force in February and March 2014, and purporting to annex it in March 2014. Russia also has invaded the eastern Ukraine provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, a region known as the “Donbas”, beginning in April, 2014.

China under Xi Jinping has built up outcroppings and built military installations in the South China Sea, in clear violation of international law, and the decision of an international arbitration tribunal organized under the provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention.

The United States has stationed troops in Syria in violation of international law, and imposed tariffs on countries in open violation of World Trade Organization norms established under binding treaties.

Iran has apparently attacked Saudi Arabian oil production facilities in blatant violation of the international law and U.N. Charter prohibition against the use of force across international frontiers.

Egypt has bombed cities in Libya in support of rebel forces challenging the official U.N.-approved government of that country.

And so on.

The American “green light” given by the U.S. president for the Turkish invasion of northern Syria–withdrawing U.S. forces from the area and abandoning U.S. Kurdish allies–is particularly galling evidence of U.S. complicity in that Turkish act of aggression.

Russia has for years joined Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, bombing, for example , civilian targets including hospitals and ambulances.

Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia have committed a number of assassinations or attempted assassinations in foreign countries in recent years.

Indeed, with major powers paying little or no attention to international law, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

The only question is how bad it will get, with major powers possessing horrific weapons including nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

We should be mindful of Yeats’ words, every day:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The Trenchant Observer

See also

“Is Turkey’s military operation in Syria justified under international law?” The Trenchant Observer, October 8, 2019.

“Foreign policy without International Law,” The Trenchant Observer, August 11, 2019.

“International Law after Trump,” The Trenchant Observer, January 10, 2019.

“Humanity’s voice of reason: International Law and the United Nations Charter,” The Trenchant Observer, July 29, 2018.

“The last international lawyer, or so it seemed,” The Trenchant Observer, September 27, 2018.

“The Great Buffoon’s lack of support of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter,” The Trenchant Observer, August 27, 2019.

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.

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